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Lawsuit faults Mass. on foster care system

A federal class action lawsuit set to go to trial Tuesday is expected to shine a harsh light on the Massachusetts child welfare system, laying out accusations that the state allowed thousands of children to suffer a wide range of abuses, including sexual assault, constant foster home uprooting, and inappropriate prescribing of psychotropic drugs.

Children’s Rights, a New York City-based child welfare watchdog group, first filed a lawsuit against the state’s Department of Children and Families in April 2010 , stating in court filings that the state is “causing physical and psychological harm to the abused and neglected children it is mandated to protect.”

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Tuesday morning at John Joseph Moakley Courthouse, the advocacy group will call its first witness: A woman who grew up in the state’s foster care system and experienced harrowing abuses while being shuttled from home to home, said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights.

“She had the kind of experiences you wouldn’t wish on anyone,” Lowry said. “When taxpayers hear what they’ve been spending money on, they will be appalled.”

But the state plans to argue in court that officials at the Department of Children and Families are aware of the problems cited by Children’s Rights, and have already taken steps to improve the child welfare system, said Angelo McClain, commissioner of the Department of Children and Families.

“We’re hoping as we present our stories, the court will conclude that we’re very passionate about making improvements to the system,” McClain said, “and that we’ve had results.”

The lawsuit is one of more than a dozen filed in recent years by Children’s Rights against child welfare departments in states around the country. Massachusetts is the first state since 2006 to fight the accusations in court, rather than agree to a settlement.

The trial could take weeks.

Reports published by Children’s Rights in recent months outline troubling statistics about the state of child welfare in Massachusetts.

According to federal audits of 47 child welfare jurisdictions in the country, Massachusetts ranked 8th worst in mistreatment rates, and 13th worst in the timeliness of adoptions.

On average, caseworkers fail to make more than one-quarter of their required monthly visits to the homes of children in the state’s care, according to reports written by child welfare policy experts and released by Children’s Rights.

A study by the US Government Accountability Office, cited by the advocacy group, said that 40 percent of foster children in Massachusetts are prescribed psychiatric medications — a much larger percentage than children not in the state’s care, only about 10 percent of whom receive the same drugs.

“The problems in foster care are often invisible problems,” Lowry said,” but they’re not without extreme pain for the children who bear the brunt of those problems.”

Lowry recognized that some improvements have been made since the lawsuit was filed, but said those corrections have come at a disappointing pace.

“The state readily admits that in some areas they haven’t made any progress,” Lowry said. “The state’s had initiatives; it’s just they haven’t succeeded. In some degree, it’s too little too late.”

“The fact that the state is trying,” she continued, “is not making life any better for these children.”

McClain contended that the state has made significant improvements. In 2008, the Department of Children and Families implemented a new model for how to manage cases and ensure that children do not fall through the cracks.

That new model, he said, has been effective: Fewer than 1 percent of Massachusetts children currently experience abuse or neglect while in the state’s care, according to state officials. And in the past four years, the number of foster care placements that prove stable increased from 72 percent to 79 percent.

“I was given a clear mandate to transform the system, and we’ve done quite a bit of work since 2008 and 2009 to implement that mandate,” McClain said. “It’s clear we’ve made some significant changes in a number of areas.”

Additionally, last year, the Department of Children and Families increased reimbursement rates for foster parents by 15 percent to 20 percent, though Lowry suggested that the payment increase was prompted by the lawsuit.

“I don’t question [Children’s Rights] motives, and I think they believe that we could be doing a better job,” McClain said. “But I don’t know how much they’ve taken into account the improvements we’ve made since 2008.”

McClain said he was concerned that resources being used to defend the case could have better been put to use in helping the children of Massachusetts. “It’s distracting the agency from doing the work we need to do,” McClain said.

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.
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