Group files foster care lawsuit against Mass.

By Steve LeBlanc
Associated Press Writer / April 15, 2010

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BOSTON—A national children's advocacy group has filed a federal class action lawsuit against Massachusetts alleging the abuse and neglect of thousands of children in state care.

The New York-based group Children's Rights said it filed the case in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts on Thursday seeking changes on behalf of about 8,500 children in foster care statewide.

The lawsuit named six child plaintiffs, identified only by their first name and last initial, who advocates said have been badly harmed in foster care. The group is being represented by the Boston law firm of Nutter McClennen & Fish.

The lawsuit alleges that the state Department of Children and Families violated children's constitutional rights by placing them in dangerous and unstable situations.

The department issued a statement in response to the lawsuit saying it shares the goal of protecting children, and said the lawsuit will force it to spend scarce dollars defending itself instead of using the money to help families.

"The Patrick-Murray administration has made the protection and care of children a top priority," the department said. "We have increased the number of children being safely cared for at home, met and exceeded the national standard for timeliness to adoption and reunification, and better supported our transition age youth."

Advocates say any improvements haven't gone nearly far enough to fix the system. The lawsuit alleges that the rate at which children in foster care in Massachusetts suffer abuse in state-supervised foster homes and institutions is nearly four times the national rate.

The suit also says that the rate at which foster children are shuffled from home to home is unacceptable. Advocates say a third of children in state foster care are moved at least five times during their time in state custody.

"Kids move from home to home to home with incredible frequency," said Sara Bartosz, senior staff attorney for Children's Rights. "Once kids are in foster care they are not making it back home or into other permanent families with any kind of timeliness."

She said the state has also failed to adequately prepare and support families to be reunified with their children.

Bartosz said the state could decide to litigate the lawsuit or instead agree to a court-ordered oversight of the child welfare system.

The lawsuit isn't the first the organization has filed.

Children's Rights has also filed lawsuits in past years against Connecticut, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Michigan, Georgia, Tennessee, Washington D.C.

Some of those lawsuits have dragged on for decades.

Connecticut on Tuesday asked a federal court to end 20 years of federal oversight of its child welfare agency, prompted by a class action lawsuit filed by the group in 1989.

The state argued that is has made significant progress toward reducing caseloads, expanding the agency's budget and making more services available to troubled families. Activists said it's premature to withdraw federal oversight there.

Erik Pitchal, an assistant clinical professor of law at Suffolk University, said the fact that the lawsuits can linger for decades isn't unusual, given the entrenched nature of the problems. Pitchal used to work for Children's Rights and still collaborates with the group.

"Governors come and go. In order to have sustained reform it often takes the persistence of lawyers working for children and the involvement of the federal court," he said. "There are no quick fixes."