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Lawsuit alleges failings in state foster care system

The suit by the New York City-based advocacy group, Children’s Rights, accuses Massachusetts of “causing physical and psychological harm to the abused and neglected children it is mandated to protect.” It says the abuse include sexual assault, constant foster home uprooting and inappropriate prescribing of psychotropic drugs.

Opening arguments in the trial, which is expected to take weeks, are scheduled for Tuesday at U.S. District Court in Boston.

The Boston Globe reports that Children’s Right’s first witness will be a woman who grew up in the Massachusetts system and suffered terrible abuse while being shuffled between foster homes.

“When taxpayers hear what they’ve been spending money on, they will be appalled,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights.

But the state plans to argue that Department of Children and Families officials are aware of the problems cited in the suit and have taken steps to improve the child welfare system.

“We’re hoping as we present our stories, the court will conclude that we’re very passionate about making improvements to the system and that we’ve had results,” Angelo McClain, commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, told the Globe.

The lawsuit is among more than a dozen filed in recent years by Children’s Rights against child welfare departments nationwide. Massachusetts is the first state to fight the accusations in court, rather than settle.

The lawsuit alleges Massachusetts violated children’s constitutional rights by placing them in dangerous and unstable situations. The suit seeks broad reforms on behalf of approximately 7,500 children in state care.

Reports cited or released by Children’s Rights said federal audits of 47 child welfare jurisdictions ranked Massachusetts 8th worst in mistreatment rates and 13th worst in timeliness of adoptions. They also indicate children in Massachusetts foster care are prescribed psychiatric medications at a rate far above children who aren’t in state care (40 percent to 10 percent).

Lowry acknowledged the state has made some improvements, but she said the changes haven’t been broad or comprehensive enough.

“The state’s had initiatives. It’s just they haven’t succeeded,” she said. “In some degree, it’s too little too late.”

But McClain said that in 2008, the state implemented an effective new model for managing cases that ensure children don’t fall through the cracks. He said fewer than 1 percent of children are now being abused or neglected in foster care. And he said the number of stable foster care placements has improved to nearly 80 percent.

McClain said he was concerned that the resources being used to defend the case could be better used to help Massachusetts children.

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

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