Children's Rights Joins Statewide Advocates In Class Action Lawsuit on Behalf of...
National and Local Advocacy Groups Join Legal Action Charging State With Violation of Civil Rights and Failure to Protect Children From Harm.
Children's Rights, the national advocacy organization that had a failing government child welfare system put under a federal court receivership for violating foster children's rights has joined forces with statewide advocates in a class action lawsuit
that charges Florida's foster care system violates due process rights for children in their care. The lawsuit was amended to expand legal choices on behalf of 23 foster children and all other children in Florida
foster care. It seeks to stop ongoing violations of children's rights and to ensure that the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) adequately cares for and protects foster children in the state's custody. The additional advocates join a team of children's advocates and noted trial attorneys from all over Florida including Karen Gievers of Tallahassee, Ted Babbitt and Bob Montgomery of West Palm Beach and Wayne Hogan of Jacksonville.
The local advocates that have joined the lawsuit are Deborah Shroth of Florida Legal Services, Inc., a statewide nonprofit organization founded in 1973 and dedicated to ensuring that poor people have equal access to justice, Chris Zawisza of Nova Law School - Children First and Claudia Wright at "Gator Teamchild," the University of Florida Fred Levin College of Law, Children's Advocacy Program. The suit was filed on behalf of 23 named plaintiffs - children who have suffered serious physical and psychological harm while in the care of DCF. The lawsuit is filed on their behalf and on behalf of the approximately 15,000 foster care children who are currently dependent on DCF for their care and protection. The original counsels of the lawsuit were joined by Rose Firestein and Marcia Robinson Lowry of Children's Rights, Daniel Freyberg, Leslie Goller of Brown, Terrell, Hogan, Deborah Shroth of Florida Legal Services, Roy Wasson, Claudia Wright of Gator Teamchild, University of Florida, Levin College of Law, and Christina A. Zawisza of Nova Law School - Children First. The Defendants in the suit include Governor Jeb Bush and Kathleen Kearney, Secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families.
"DCF is a grossly mismanaged and overburdened child welfare system," said Marcia Robinson Lowry, Executive Director of Children's Rights, a national organization that is counsel in ten other foster care class actions around the country. "Florida's failure to protect foster care children in DCF custody and provide them and their families with appropriate placements and services has endangered their lives. Children are often placed for long periods in overcrowded, temporary holding facilities without services or treatment, because DCF has nowhere else to place these children. Monitoring and supervision of children in DCF custody is frequently inadequate, so children in DCF custody often suffer abuse
and neglect while in custody. The Florida child welfare system is in a state of crisis as severe as any we have seen."
"The number of children in foster care in Florida keeps rising and the conditions they experience are deplorable," said Chris Zawiswa of Nova Law School - Children First. "Many of the named plaintiffs have been brutalized, some have even been tortured. This case is a slam dunk on the facts."
"There were 8,338 children in foster care in 1998, today there are 15,000 and DCF projects that number to rise to 18,000 by June 2001. Yet the resources to protect these children in foster care have not risen proportionately," said Ms. Zawiswa. "For example, DCF says it needs 833 more out of home counselors, and yet in its budget, DCF requested funding for only 104 new counselors. Their attempt to reform
has not only failed to improve children's lives or improve the efficiency of the system, but has created deprivations that have worsened over time, resulting in dangerous and unlawful conditions that exist today."
"We have seen first-hand the cruel indifference which the State of Florida exhibits to the safety and well-being of the children it places in its own custody," said Deborah Shroth of Florida Legal Services. "Indifference which would clearly be labeled neglect if such conduct were perpetuated by the children's own parents. Indifference which allows these children, in need of the protection of the State, to suffer emotional, physical and even sexual abuse while in the very homes intended to protect them."Key facts and claims in the amended lawsuit include:OVERCROWDING
DCF's continued overcrowding and inadequately supervised foster homes and other out-of-home care facilities expose children in DCF's custody to the imminent risk of sexual and other abuse, neglect and other dangers while they remain in DCF's care.
DCF has put children in foster care placements that were dangerous, abusive, neglectful, overcrowded, or wholly inappropriate to and incapable of meeting the children's individual needs. MOTEL PLACEMENT
In DCF's budget document, they state there has been a significant increase in the need for out-of-home care placement options for children who have been identified as victims of child abuse or neglect. Over the next two years, DCF is expecting continued increases in the number of children requiring out-of-home placements. There has not been a parallel increase in the number of available foster homes resulting in overcrowded conditions in current foster homes and other related facilities. This has caused districts to pay for children and staff to be housed in motels. RE-ENTRY
Based on DCF's own data, during the period covering fourth quarter FY 98-99 through second quarter FY 99-00, only 23.9% of the children in a licensed home or group care facility who exited foster care did not re-enter foster care within 12 months. Thus, 76.1% of these children did re-enter government custody within 12 months, indicating their biological families posed an immediate danger to their safety, health or well being. DCF fell far short of Florida's own standard that over 95% of the children should not re-enter foster care within 12 months, as well as the State's interim goal that 70% of the children should not re-enter care. LENGTH OF TIME IN CARE
These children have been retained in foster care for excessive amounts of time because they have failed to exercise professional judgment in identifying and implementing the reasonable steps needed to discharge these children to an appropriate permanent living arrangement with their biological family, through adoption or otherwise. VISITATIONS
There are inadequate face-to-face visitations by social workers. As a result of excessive workloads, out-of-home counselors
do not visit Plaintiffs and the putative class members in their placements with sufficient frequency in a manner that is adequate to ensure such children's safety.
Children's Rights works throughout the United States in partnership with national and local experts, advocates and government officials to document the needs of children in the care of child welfare systems. Children's Rights helps develop realistic solutions and, where necessary, uses the power of litigation to ensure that reform takes place.