State cites gains, disputes data

A national advocacy group filed a lawsuit yesterday in federal court in Springfield, arguing that the state's foster care system is in dire need of reform because it violates children's rights by "routinely placing them in dangerous and unstable situations.''

New York City-based Children's Rights, which has filed similar lawsuits in more than a dozen states, argues that Massachusetts has one of the highest rates of abuse of children in foster care and that its system is rife with other problems.

The lawsuit, which names six children allegedly harmed by inadequate supervision by the state Department of Children and Families, says children in the foster care system suffer abuse at nearly four times the national standard.

It argues the agency "further traumatizes children'' by moving them frequently, alleging that one-third of children in state foster care are sent to five or more homes during their time in custody. The suit also says the state has failed to prepare parents for reunions with their children.

"There is absolutely no justification for what Massachusetts is doing to its most vulnerable children,'' Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights, said in a statement. "It is robbing them of their right to be protected from abuse and neglect and to grow up in safe and stable homes with loving, permanent families.''

State officials, while acknowledging the agency's challenges, disputed the allegations and argued that the DCF has made significant progress in recent years by increasing the number of children cared for safely in their own homes, exceeding national standards for adoption and reunifying families, and improving programs for children who leave foster care as they get older.

They noted the Patrick administration has made changes in the agency, which employees 2,400 caseworkers for about 8,000 children in foster care, though its budget has decreased as state revenues have plummeted.

The governor has sought $760 million for the agency next fiscal year, nearly 10 percent less than two years ago.

"We strongly share this group's goal that all children are raised in safe and nurturing environments,'' said Alison R. Goodwin, a DCF spokeswoman. "We regret that their lawsuit will force us to expend already limited resources during this fiscal crisis to defend this suit, instead of investing those resources in efforts to serve children and families.''

Goodwin said it was unfair for Children's Rights to compare abuse rates between Massachusetts and other states, because Massachusetts has a lower threshold for reviewing allegations of abuse and neglect.

"It looks like we have a high rate of maltreatment, but it's how we categorize our reports,'' she said. She noted Massachusetts is one of eight states that investigates allegations based on a "reasonable cause'' standard, rather than the higher standards of "credible evidence'' or "beyond a reasonable doubt'' used in other states. "We have a low tolerance for risk.''

At a news conference yesterday at a Boston law firm, Lowry argued the state's foster care system trails others because DCF caseloads are higher than in other states. She said the average caseworker oversees 28 families, while the national standard is 13 to 18 children per caseworker.

Lowry also argued the state has failed to pay foster parents sufficiently and has repeatedly lost the opportunity to be reimbursed by the federal government because it has not filed applications in a timely way.

"It's not a well-managed system,'' Lowry said. "There's a failure of management.''

Goodwin said the department has cut the number of children in foster care by about 2,000 over the past two years and the average caseload has dropped below 18 children for every caseworker.

The suit, which names Governor Deval Patrick, Secretary JudyAnn Bigby of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, and DCF Commissioner Angelo McClain, was filed on behalf of six children from 9 to 15 years old.

The lawsuit said one child was sexually abused after being sent to seven foster homes over three years, another endured physical and psychological abuse while going through eight foster homes, and another was returned to an abusive mother after 11 placements.

Zevorah Ortega-Bagni, president of the union that represents DCF caseworkers, said she hopes the lawsuit will lead to changes.

"I am very disappointed that matters have come to this stage,'' she said. "The system has some serious, serious problems. . . . I hope the Department of Children and Families will rectify all the problems that may have contributed to all the harm that children have received while in the foster care system.''

The suit, for which class-action status is sought, asks the court to bar the state from further violating children's rights "and order relief via widespread reforms.''

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