Cost of settlement to end long-running DCYF lawsuit could top $1M

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A decade-old class-action civil-rights lawsuit against Rhode Island’s child welfare agency may be close to coming to an end, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $1 million, the Target 12 Investigators have learned.

The suit was filed in federal court in 2007 by Children’s Rights Inc., a New York-based nonprofit that has filed similar challenges in more than a dozen states. The suit accused DCYF leaders of failing children in their custody, claiming “state officials’ actions and inactions have led to fundamental, systemic failings that place all children in their foster care custody at unreasonable risks of serious harm.”

In a presentation to the House Finance Committee on Tuesday evening, House Fiscal Advisor Sharon Reynolds Ferland said the state has pegged the potential cost of a settlement in the long-running case at $1.2 million. But she warned that the final amount “may be much larger.”

While the suit represents all children currently in the legal custody of DCYF, 19 children – identified by only their first names – are listed as plaintiffs in the case, filed at U.S. District Court in Providence.

Each of their stories, chronicled in multiple legal complaints, is disturbing.

One child was removed from a home he was placed into by the state after investigators found cigarette burns on his body. Another – identified only as 11-year-old Matthew R. – was removed from his home by DCYF and placed into kinship foster care, only to be yanked out of that setting too when investigators discovered a registered sex offender was living there.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs have cited a host of issues they think are causing the agency to fail children in state custody, including DCYF caseworkers overburdened with heavy caseloads and too much reliance on institutional care rather than family-oriented settings like foster homes.

The docket in the case shows a series of settlement meetings have taken place in recent months, and Target 12 has learned the two sides are close to terms. Previous mediation efforts in the case, dating as far back as 2011, had been unsuccessful.

Any settlement would have to be approved by a judge.

DCYF Director Trista Piccola, also testifying before House Finance on Tuesday, told lawmakers there are currently 1,860 children in “out-of-home placement,” which is a 10% increase over the last 10 months. She said 1,540 of those children are in family settings, while the rest are living in an institutional setting.

“Our concern for the overuse of institutional care for our children continues,” Piccola told the committee. “We have significantly stepped up – along with our partners in the provider community – our recruitment efforts to find families for all of our children.”

Mike Raia, a spokesperson for Gov. Gina Raimondo, declined to comment on a potential settlement of the Children’s Rights lawsuit because the case is still active. But he said Raimondo and her aides “remain committed to continue strengthening support and services for children in DCYF care.”

A lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the case did not immediately return a call for comment.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook