Federal judge says RI foster care suit may proceed
PROVIDENCE, R.I.—A lawsuit alleging that foster children in Rhode Island are routinely neglected and at risk of harm while in state custody may go forward, a federal judge has ruled.
The class-action lawsuit filed by the national watchdog group Children's Rights says the state's foster care system is plagued by widespread, systemic problems that leave children's needs unmet and put youth at risk of emotional and physical harm.
The state had sought to have the suit thrown out, saying the federal court has no jurisdiction to hear the case and that the suit is moot because several of the 10 children initially named as plaintiffs have been adopted.
In a ruling Wednesday, Chief U.S. District Court Judge Mary Lisi dismissed the complaints of five original plaintiffs because they are no longer in the custody of the state Department of Children, Youth and Families. But Lisi allowed the case to proceed with the two remaining plaintiffs, who are still in the state's care.
Children's Rights had itself earlier withdrawn the claims of three plaintiffs when they were adopted.
Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights, called the ruling a victory for Rhode Island's vulnerable children.
"The state has tried to stall us for as long as they could," she said. "The children have continued to suffer. We think it's a turning point in the case.
"For a long time, Rhode Island has had serious problems with the system, and it has never really addressed them."
Amy Kempe, a spokeswoman for Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, said her office is "reviewing the matter."
The suit was first filed by Children's Rights and then-Rhode Island Child Advocate Jametta Alston in 2007. It was dismissed in 2009, then reinstated last year by a federal appeals court.
The group says some 2,000 children are in the state foster care system.
On July 1, Children's Rights filed a supplemental complaint seeking to add five new plaintiffs to the case.
In the four years since the suit was filed, that complaint says, children in the state's custody have continued to be at risk every day. It says the Department of Children, Youth and Family subjects them to "maltreatment in foster care at one of the highest rates in the country, frequent moves, inappropriately restrictive placements, a lack of services to meet their needs, and the likelihood of growing up without a permanent, loving family."
Among those the group wants to add as plaintiffs are a 14-year-old girl whom DCYF allegedly allowed to remain in her mother's care despite reports that she and her sisters had been physically and sexually abused, and a 15-year-old girl also allegedly permitted to remain with her parents after caseworkers learned of physical abuse and severe neglect in the home.
The supplemental complaint alleges that the rate of abuse in foster care in Rhode Island is nearly four times the national standard