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Judge hears case over Mass. foster care system

State neglected children, suit says

A former foster child told a federal judge Tuesday that she was neglected, shuffled from one home to another, and over-prescribed psychotropic medications while under the custody of the state’s child welfare agency.

Lauren Ashley James, the oldest of five siblings, was an orphan by age 12 — after her father died and her mother committed suicide — and in her years in state custody she stayed with families who spoke little English and who made her clean and gave her little food, she said. In another case, James said, when she was a teenager, she stayed with a middle-aged woman who treated her more like a roommate than as a child of the state, forcing James to fend for herself.

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“I was always telling them, ‘I want a permanent family,’ ” said James, a 24-year-old aspiring fashion designer who lives on her own in Brooklyn and who says she no longer takes the psychotropic medications she had been prescribed for years as a child.

A native of Salem, James was the first witness in a class action lawsuit that began Tuesday, and she sought to support a child advocacy group’s claims that Massachusetts has neglected thousands of children in its foster care programs, while inappropriately prescribing them psychotropic drugs.

The lawsuit, brought by the New York City-based child welfare watchdog group Children’s Rights, alleges that Massachusetts ranks among the worst states in the country in caring for foster children.

And while others have worked to address problems with its childcare system, the lawsuit alleges, the state has not.

“There’s been a substantial departure from professional judgment and practices,” Sara Bartosz, a lawyer with Children’s Rights, told US District Court Judge William G. Young Tuesday. “It’s not a system that’s built so that there are structures in place that you can rely upon.”

But Liza Tran, an assistant attorney general representing the agency now known as the Department of Children and Families, argued that the state has improved its foster care program under the Governor Deval Patrick administration and that a federal study ranking Massachusetts among the worst failed to recognize the way the state openly reports cases, compared to more secretive states.

She also said improvements in family monitoring has allowed for more children to stay with their parents, reducing the number in group homes. And state officials argue that the number of children subject to abuse or neglect in the state’s care has dropped, while the number of foster care placements that prove stable increased.

“The effect is they’ve been able to provide services to children, to keep them safe,” she said.

Under questioning, James acknowledged that she secured several jobs and has been living well as an adult and that she continued to seek state assistance after turning 18.

Rather than a jury, the case will be decided by Young. And while the judge said Tuesday that the court should not have to play a role in child welfare programs, he raised concerns with Massachusetts’ ability to provide proper services while forecasting tight budgets.

“How are we going to be assured of that (reported improvement) . . . in times of across-the-board budget cuts?” the judge asked. He questioned whether the court could set a standard that would be agreeable to both sides, and both responded that they did not know.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.
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