PROVIDENCE — Attorneys from the Rhode Island branch of the American Civil Liberties Union on Monday joined a long-standing lawsuit that requires the Department of Children, Youth, and Families to implement systemic reforms to protect the rights of children in foster care.
The lawsuit was first filed in 2007 by the national advocacy organization Children’s Rights, which alleged that DCYF’s lack of funding, social workers having excessive caseloads, and mismanagement had allowed children in foster care to be abused and shuffled from home to home.
The initial suit led to a settlement agreement in 2018. The settlement, which was filed in US District Court, was designed to address systemic deficiencies in DCYF’s alleged treatment of children in foster care by requiring the state to implement improvements that could be verified. Those deficiencies, which were detailed in court filings, include the agency’s placement of children in “inappropriate and unsafe settings” and DCYF’s “failure to recruit or license foster care placements in a timely manner.” Many children, the court filings allege, were not provided with adequate case plans.
The settlement said if the state did not implement the agreed-upon reforms, a third party could ask a federal court to step in. The case had spanned the terms of three governors and is now into Dan McKee’s administration.
Despite the settlement agreement, ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Lynette Labinger says DCYF’s deficiencies have continued.
After the ACLU of Rhode Island approached Children’s Rights, Labinger says she joined the suit to secure “compliance with the settlement agreement and, if necessary, to seek court enforcement in the event that the parties’ out-of-court discussions do not achieve timely compliance with important areas of the agreement.”
A DCYF spokeswoman declined to comment on Tuesday.
ACLU executive director Steven Brown also said local advocates have long detailed the lack of adequate facilities within DCYF’s network for foster children with mental health needs. It’s causing “ongoing harm caused by the inappropriate housing of some children – mostly girls,” said Brown.
Many adolescent girls are being held in psychiatric hospitals for long stays because of the lack of alternative placements. Others are being placed in out-of-state residential facilities, the ACLU says. This is particularly the case for girls who require “trauma-informed treatment” and intensive psychiatric care, according to the Office of the Child Advocate’s 2022 Annual Report.
Earlier this month, DCYF said it would construct a new 16-bed residential treatment facility for girls at the old Ladd School in Exeter, which is an abandoned state psychiatric institution. The department plans on opening the facility by 2026.
In February, state officials announced that DCYF and St. Mary’s Home for Children entered into an $11 million agreement for an expanded Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facility in North Providence. The agreement details plans to construct a 12-bed facility for girls. However, construction isn’t expected to be complete until November 2024, with an anticipated opening date sometime in the spring of 2025.
But these combined 28 new beds “will not come on-line for some time and remain woefully inadequate in terms of the need,” said Brown.
DCYF spends approximately $54,000 per day to send children out-of-state, Katelyn Medeiros, the state’s Acting Child Advocate, told the House Oversight Committee on April 6. The Office of the Child Advocate is independent of DCYF.
Samantha Bartosz, deputy litigation director at Children’s Rights, said the organization wants to hold DCYF accountable for its court-enforceable promise of reforms, but is also concerned by the shortage of community-based foster homes and services to “meet the well-known needs of kids with significant mental health needs.”
“These kids badly need and deserve the right care,” said Bartosz.