Friday, January 15, 2010

Federal appeals court judges question dismissal of R.I. child advocate’s lawsuit

By Katie Mulvaney, Journal Staff Writer Projo.Com

BOSTON — A federal appeals court panel that includes retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter appeared perplexed Tuesday by the dismissal of a lawsuit that accuses the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families of widespread abuse and neglect of children in state foster care.

Rhode Island Child Advocate Jametta O. Alston and the New York-based advocacy group Children’s Rights asked the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn Senior U.S. District Judge Ronald R. Lagueux’s dismissal of the lawsuit alleging the system was underfunded, understaffed and mismanaged, and that children were being molested, beaten and shuffled from home to home while in state foster care. They argued that Lagueux had used a law intended to guarantee children access to the federal courts instead to bar them from seeking justice.

The DCYF countered that Lagueux was correct in finding that the children’s interests were already being served in state Family Court, where guardians had been appointed to handle each child’s case.

“The District Court judge did find these … children have the ability to have their voices heard,” Asst. Attorney General Brenda D. Baum said.

But those arguments did not sit well with the appeals court judges. Lagueux’s ruling seemed to chronicle years of mistreatment of children in state care, only to reject the three “next friends” chosen to represent the children in bringing the lawsuit in U.S. District Court, noted Senior Judge Norman H. Stahl.

Didn’t Lagueux have the duty to then name appropriate people to take on the children’s federal case? Stahl asked. A minor may only bring suit when represented by a “next friend” or guardian appointed by the court. By dismissing the case, the judge is essentially saying “what is going on is good enough?” Stahl said.

Souter echoed that reasoning. “He’s throwing up his hands and throwing the case out,” said Souter, who returned to the appeals court for the first time since his retirement.

The record, Baum said, is thick with Family Court documents that show active engagement in the children’s cases. Souter replied that Family Court involvement is not in question. What is, he said, is whether “insufficient things are being done to protect children.”

Alston’s case may target the DCYF, Baum said, but Family Court is also involved in decision making. “It can’t be limited to them.”

The case, Souter said, boils down to whether the Family Court and the DCYF are doing the best they can. Alston is claiming, he said, that the next friends are needed because the system “does not provide minimum things that need to be provided.”

Susan Lambiase, associate director of Children’s Rights, argued that the Family Court guardians were not appropriate to represent the children in federal court because they were part of the system the suit seeks to overhaul.

She asked the appeals court to develop a test to gauge whether a next friend is qualified not on how close he or she is to the child, but on whether the person has a “good-faith interest in seeking justice” on a child’s behalf.

“[The next friends] are not ideologues,” Lambiase said. “They are here on behalf of the children.”

Alston and Children’s Rights filed the suit in 2007 on behalf of the 3,000 children in state custody following the death of T.J. Wright, a Woonsocket toddler beaten to death by his aunt and her boyfriend while in DCYF care. The suit initially named 10 children as plaintiffs and sought class-action status, saying their civil rights were being violated.

Alston appointed “next friends” to represent the children, including one child’s former foster mother, another’s past school psychologist and a Brown University professor who specializes in child maltreatment.

Lagueux dismissed the suit, saying Alston had no authority to proceed because the children were already under state Family Court jurisdiction. The three “next friends,” he said, had limited or nonexistent relationships with the children.

Alston wept after Tuesday’s arguments. “This is the first time I’ve heard judges understand the plight of children in their care,” she said. “It’s the first time I’ve seen how facts and justice can blend.”

Jim Lee, chief of the attorney general’s civil division, was more circumspect. “I think they see it as a serious case, and they’re going to give it serious consideration.” He was accompanied by Kevin Aucoin, chief counsel of the DCYF.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lou Ann, also, posted it at EstateofDenial! It is huge because it is a lawsuit against social services!!! The state of Rhode Island has an independent office which is, strickly, for child advocacy. They, together, with another child advocacy group, Children's Rights, out of NY, filed a lawsuit with the Federal Appeals Court in 2007 against Rhode Island CPS. A, retired, Supreme Court Justice, Judge David H. Souter, came out of retirement to be on the panel of judges. The district court judge had covered up the abuses against children who were under the control of CPS (Child Protective Services) and, as we are all familiar with, used a law that was intended to protect the children, against them. The federal level judges were very perplexed, as these children in state foster care were suffering horribly, including sexual abuse and death and were, also, being denied due process. This, Ray, could and should set a precedent! I spoke with their office, today, and they are aware that this is a rampant problem and that there is a rampant problem with APS and the Offices on Aging. In other words, they know that social services is neglecting and abusing humanity, all over the country! The hearing was last week and the judges will render a decision, within the next two months. (That is standard for appeals.) So, if it goes in favor of the children this will (should) be a huge story. I'd like to see a bunch of us write the judges and let them know it is a rampant problem and that they should not go easy on the perps! Got it?!! :)