By Eric Tucker
Associated Press / January 19, 2011
PROVIDENCE, R.I.—A lawsuit alleging that Rhode Island's foster children are routinely neglected and abused should move forward, the advocates who brought the case say in new court papers. The lawsuit alleges that the state's foster care system is broken, with caseworkers who are saddled by excessive caseloads and children in state custody who are at risk of harm and are shuffled from home-to-home without having their needs met. About 2,300 children are in the state foster care system, the advocacy group says.
The suit was initially dismissed in 2009 but reinstated last year by a federal appeals court.
The state has again asked a judge to throw the case out, arguing that the federal court has no jurisdiction to hear it and that the 2007 suit is moot since several of the 10 children who were named as plaintiffs have been adopted and are no longer in the state's legal custody.
But lawyers for Children's Rights, a national watchdog group that brought the case, say in court papers filed late Tuesday that the state is trying to avoid responsibility for a failed system and is refusing to address the merits of the lawsuit.
"What they're saying is we don't want those claims to be heard at all," said Shirim Nothenberg, a staff attorney for Children's Rights. "There's been a lot of energy spent trying to avoid having the merits of these children's claims heard."
She said the problems are so systemic that they can't be fixed individually at the family court level but rather require a federal lawsuit. The plaintiffs are seeking class-action status.
The group's suggested changes include requiring the Department of Children, Youth and Families to limit caseworker caseloads and to adequately recruit, screen and train adoptive parents.
Jim Lee, the chief of the civil division at the state attorney general's office, which is representing the state in the lawsuit, said the child advocate's office -- which also brought the suit -- could and should have addressed any concerns about individual children with the state's family court. But that, he said, has not happened.
"The child advocate can walk in there today, yesterday or three years ago and tell the judge, 'This is a problem. Here's my position. Act on it,'" Lee said.