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Advocate seeks to revive R.I. foster-care lawsuit

By Eric Tucker
Associated Press / August 11, 2009

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PROVIDENCE - Rhode Island’s child advocate asked a federal appeals court yesterday to reinstate a lawsuit that seeks an overhaul of the state’s foster-care system.

A federal judge earlier this year had dismissed the complaint, which alleged systemic abuse and neglect of some of the roughly 3,000 children in state custody.

The lawsuit, which sought class-action status, named 10 children as plaintiffs. Because minors cannot bring federal lawsuits on their own, Rhode Island Child Advocate Jametta Alston and Children’s Rights, a national advocacy group, appointed a group of adults to represent the children’s interests in court.

One child was to be represented by his former foster mother and another by his former school psychologist. A university professor specializing in child maltreatment was appointed guardian for the rest of the children.

But US District Judge Ronald Lagueux dismissed the suit in April, saying the adults did not have close enough relationships with the children to act on their behalf.

Yesterday, Alston and Children’s Rights appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Boston.

They said the judge, who has called the lawsuit’s allegations heartbreaking, could have selected alternate guardians.

Susan Lambiase, associate director of New York-based Children’s Rights, said foster children are often shuffled from home to home and have a difficult time forging lasting relationships. She said the children were being unfairly punished.

“They’ve been ripped from their families. They’ve been ripped from their extended families. They’ve been ripped from their communities and schools,’’ she said.

The lawsuit was filed in 2007, three years after the death of 3-year-old Thomas “T.J.’’ Wright, who was fatally beaten in the custody of his aunt and her live-in boyfriend in a case that raised questions about how foster parents are screened. The guardians were convicted of second-degree murder.

The lawsuit highlighted several cases of alleged abuse.

Michael Healey, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said in an e-mail yesterday: “They have a right to appeal and we don’t begrudge it.’’

Governor Don Carcieri, who is among the defendants, has said that the state Department of Children, Youth and Families has made improvements in the past two years. They include a reduced caseload and a decreased number of children in residential placement, he has said.