Class Action Lawsuit on Behalf of Children Seeks Reform of New Jerseys Failing Child...

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A federal civil rights lawsuit filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey charges that the state's child welfare system is poorly managed, overburdened, underfunded and is severely harming the health and safety of New Jersey's children. The class action lawsuit, Charlie and Nadine H. v. Whitman charges the state with systemically violating children's constitutional rights and is filed by Children's Rights, Inc. (CRI), a national advocacy group, and by Lowenstein Sandler, one of New Jersey's largest law firms. The legal complaint filed in the federal courthouse in Trenton alleges that the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) endangers the lives of tens of thousands of New Jersey's most vulnerable citizens. It cites DYFS's persistent failure to care for and protect children in its custody or those reported to be in danger of abuse and neglect.

Charlie and Nadine H. v. Whitman was filed on behalf of 20 named plaintiff children living in eight different New Jersey counties who have all experienced serious physical and psychological harm while in the care of DYFS or while known to DYFS because of allegations of abuse and neglect. The lawsuit is also on behalf of over 50,000 children from every county in New Jersey, including over 9,000 children in the custody of DYFS and over 42,000 children known to DYFS because of reports of abuse or neglect. Defendants in the suit are Governor Christine Todd Whitman, Michele K. Guhl, Commissioner of the Department of Human Services, and Charles Venti, Director of the Division of Youth and Family Services of the State of New Jersey.

Children's Rights responded to requests from local advocates to investigate New Jersey's child welfare system over three years ago. When Governor Whitman appointed a Blue Ribbon Panel of child welfare professionals to examine DYFS, CRI suspended its review, awaiting the panel's findings and action by the state. The Panel's Final Report, issued in February 1998, concluded that DYFS had been damaged by years of cut-backs and neglect; identified problems at every point in the child welfare process; and, stated that the capacity of DYFS has been reduced to a "crisis mode of intervention." The Governor's strategic plan failed to address what the panel identified as the most fundamental and urgent problems facing DYFS.

"DYFS's violations are broad, deep and pervasive and rob children of their families, health and normal childhoods and sometimes their lives," stated Susan Lambiase, Associate Director of Children's Rights. "These multiple violations are a result of crushing caseloads, pervasive lack of resources and services and a child welfare system that is still in a state of chaos. Some caseworkers are responsible for over 100 children. Comparing the DYFS budget from fiscal year 1994 and that appropriated for fiscal year 2000, the amount spent for each child under DYFS supervision went down $63.25 per child -- not even accounting for inflation."

With renewed calls from advocates, foster parents and caseworkers, over the past nine months CRI conducted extensive interviews and met with more than 400 people involved in the day-to-day operations of the child welfare system, including state judges, state and private agency caseworkers, educators, foster parents, adoptive parents and children living in foster care. Each described specific examples of DYFS's systemic failures that pointed to the need for a lawsuit to force reform of DYFS practices. Those deficiencies, detailed in the complaint, include:

leaving children in homes where they are abused and neglected, and even killed;

removing children from homes when they could be safely maintained there with provision of services;

keeping children in foster care unnecessarily with little attempt to reunite them with families;

moving children from foster home to foster home without adequate services or support;

allowing children to languish for years in DYFS custody with little hope of a permanent adoptive home.

"The stories of the physical and psychological damage inflicted unnecessarily on New Jersey's children are some of the most disturbing that I have heard in 25 years of work in child welfare," stated Marcia Robinson Lowry, Executive Director of Children's Rights. "Although the state is well aware of the need to take aggressive action to protect its most vulnerable children, Governor Whitman is not adequately addressing the problems identified and recommendations made over a year ago by her own blue ribbon panel of experts. Our first step was to offer to work on reform collaboratively with the state. When that was rejected, we had no choice but to file this lawsuit - to speed real reform, ensure that the real problems are addressed and necessary funding provided to protect children and save lives."

"As the information developed by Children's Rights demonstrates, even DYFS's favorable perspective on its own inadequacies shows it has failed New Jersey's children at risk," stated David L. Harris, a partner with Lowenstein Sandler who is leading the firm's pro bono work in this lawsuit. "No amount of spin given to the press will prevent a lawsuit, forestall our efforts to bring justice to bear for the benefit of children who are in DYFS's care, or distract the public from DYFS's longstanding refusal to address the glaring needs of New Jersey's most vulnerable citizens."

Plaintiffs in today's suit include, among others:

Charlie and Nadine H., who were removed from their home in Mercer County by DYFS when they were five and three, respectively, after their mother attempted to drown Nadine. They have been in foster care for over five years and desperately want to be adopted. DYFS placed Charlie and Nadine with a foster mother who beat them with broomsticks and curtain rods, in a home littered with garbage and feces. A police officer who knew the children repeatedly called these conditions to DYFS's attention, yet DYFS persisted in its plan to have the children adopted by the abusive foster mother. Only when the foster mother threatened to kill the children, did DYFS put them in an "emergency" foster home on a "temporary basis," with no concrete prospects for adoption. Five and a half years after coming into state custody, DYFS has not placed Charlie and Nadine in a pre-adoptive home.

Ricardo O. is a thirteen-and-a-half year old boy who has been in DYFS custody since 1997. He and his four siblings were removed from his mother's home in Hudson County after Ricardo was sexually abused and beaten by his mother's boyfriend. His need for professional help was obvious, yet DYFS placed him and his siblings with a maternal aunt ill-equipped to handle Ricardo's special needs. His behavior deteriorated: he stuck his fingers in electrical sockets and tried to throw himself in front of a moving car. After attempting to cut off his penis with a dull knife, Ricardo was placed in a psychiatric hospital. He received treatment and improved, but DYFS kept him hospitalized even after it determined he should have been discharged. He was subsequently raped by other boys in the facility. He was moved to a facility that could not adequately protect him. He has just reported that he was sexually assaulted in this newest placement. When discussing his life and future, Ricardo states: "I've got nothing to live for."

Dolores and Anna G. Sisters Dolores, age four, and Anna, age seventeen months, were placed in foster care when they were found living in squalor in a trash-strewn home that had no electricity or running water. DYFS had previously removed three other siblings from the home and the parents' rights had been terminated for these children before Dolores and Anna were born. Though DYFS knew that the parents would be unable to care for Dolores and Anna, they closed the case on the home three months before they were removed. At that time, 18 of Dolores' 20 teeth were completely decayed, she was lacking needed eyeglasses, and is developmentally delayed; Anna was found to be malnourished and her neck was too weak to support her head which had become partially flattened from laying too long on her back. When they entered foster care, it took days of bathing to remove the accumulated layers of dirt on the children. Though the sisters are currently in supportive foster care, DYFS has made no plans for a permanent placement and still intends to return the children to their parents. A new caseworker assigned in the spring of 1999 has visited their foster home only once and has never met Dolores's and Anna's parents.

Jason, Jennifer and Patti W. are ten, eight and six-year-old siblings removed from their mother's Cape May home due to neglect. During three years in foster care, they each have been in several different placements. Although their father has an ongoing relationship with the children and is able and willing to care them, DYFS is pursuing termination of the father's rights. Other than referring the father to a years-long waiting list for public housing, DYFS has done nothing to facilitate family reunification. At the same time, DYFS has now placed another child - the children's cousin - with the children's father. Meanwhile, Jason and Jennifer are separated not only from their father, but also from Patti, who is placed in a separate foster home. All three children have been repeatedly placed with foster parents unable to adopt them.

Dennis M. and Denise R. are siblings in Mercer County who have been under DYFS supervision since 1995 when their mother sexually assaulted Denise, who was three years old. DYFS placed the children with their grandparents who had diminished capacity and were incapable of protecting Dennis and Denise from their mother. In 1997, DYFS removed the children and placed them with their father. Dennis was so afraid of returning to his father that his hands had to be pried off the school railing to get him on the school bus home. DYFS did nothing until Dennis's father was arrested for sexually assaulting a minor. Both children have now been in an "emergency" foster home for the last nine months, with serious emotional and behavioral problems as a result of their abuse and neglect. Their condition is deteriorating but DYFS has failed to ensure that the children receive therapy or that they have a reasonable chance of being adopted.

Marco and Juan C. are eight and ten year old brothers from Essex County who have spent half of their lives in foster care. They have each been in ten different placements and were sent out of state with the promise of adoption to a home that was so bad it was closed by local authorities. Upon return to New Jersey, Marco and Juan were placed with foster parents who speak almost exclusively Spanish, even though the boys speak only English. Juan was placed in another home, but Marco remains in the Spanish-speaking foster home, and is exhibiting severe symptoms of distress, including excessive rocking and self-mutilation. DYFS has failed to take effective action to help Marco, despite his urgent need for help, and is not taking the necessary steps to achieve permanency for these boys.

Kyle I. is a one-and-a-half year old toddler from Essex County whose mother is a drug addict. Kyle spent two months in the hospital after birth but was discharged after being deemed healthy by his doctors. Kyle's mother has never visited him and DYFS has concluded that Kyle should be adopted. Despite the plan for adoption and the doctor's healthy diagnosis, Kyle was placed in a foster home for medically fragile infants with foster parents who cannot adopt Kyle. DYFS has not begun proceedings to terminate his mother's parental rights and Kyle remains in a "temporary" foster home forming strong attachments to adults who cannot adopt him.

Each of the named plaintiffs has been paired with a Next Friend. Next Friends are citizens concerned about children, who have agreed to represent the plaintiffs, who as minors cannot participate in the lawsuit alone. These citizens include two school principals, two teachers, a minister, a nurse, a grandparent, and an attorney-child advocate.

CRI and Lowenstein Sandler request on behalf of plaintiff children that the court do the following:

*Permanently enjoin defendants from subjecting members of the plaintiff class to practices that violate their rights;
*Order appropriate remedial relief to ensure defendants' future compliance with legally mandated services to plaintiffs;
*Appoint an expert panel to develop and oversee a plan for reform, to ensure that defendants protect the constitutional and federal statutory rights of the plaintiff class.

Lowenstein Sandler consistently ranks at the top among New Jersey's largest law firms in the New Jersey Law Journal's annual pro bono survey. The firm has played a visible role in cases involving educational equity, civil rights, and political asylum, and has a deep commitment to children's issues.

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.
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