State reaches settlement in DCYF lawsuit prompted by toddler’s beating death

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The state has reached a settlement agreement that could put an end to a decade-long lawsuit against the state’s child welfare agency, in a case provoked by the 2004 beating death of a Woonsocket toddler.

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 lawsuit accused leaders of the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) 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.”

The life of the case spanned the terms of two governors and into the Gina Raimondo administration, but the key face in the complaint never changed.

T.J. Wright was 3 years old in 2004, when police found his 32-pound body beaten to death in a Woonsocket apartment.

Two trials revealed Wright was beaten and thrown down a flight of stairs for spilling his milk and yogurt.

His maternal aunt Katherine Bunnell and her boyfriend Gilbert Dilestre were convicted of second-degree murder in separate trials in 2008. They were both sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole, plus 10 years.

The Wright case is detailed in the introduction of the 2007 lawsuit that also includes allegations of poor care and treatment of ten plaintiffs.

One case involved a pair of brothers in DCYF custody who were allegedly physically sexual abused as they were “moved at least ten times each to unstable and inappropriate placements.”

Another referred to a child who was not freed for adoption by DCYF despite his parents’ “untreated substance abuse.”

READ: Settlement » 2007 Complaint »

According to court documents, the settlement agreement – signed by both parties last week – proposes a set of sweeping reforms to DCYF.

Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, whose office represented the state in the suit, released the following list of DCYF changes in the proposed settlement:

  • DCYF shall perform an assessment of every child that enters foster care or upon a placement change;
  • DCYF shall not place a child in a shelter under any circumstances;
  • DCYF will limit the placement of children in congregate care;
  • DCYF shall strive to place siblings together;
  • DCYF shall develop mechanisms to track visitation between siblings and parents;
  • DCYF will comply with new targets for timeliness of investigations;
  • DCYF will reassess the base rates for foster care maintenance payments and review the base rates every three years;
  • DCYF shall conduct an annual assessment of events of abuse or neglect occurring in DCYF foster care;
  • DCYF shall develop and implement an annual recruitment and retention plan for foster homes.

DCYF will also be hiring an independent third-party monitor to validate its data and share information with the state child advocate’s office.

As Target 12 previously reported, state budget officials have pegged the potential cost of a settlement in the long-running case at $1.2 million, while warning it could be higher. Amy Kempe, a spokesperson for the AG’s office, said the plaintiffs in the lawsuit (children identified primarily by just a first name) will not be receiving money as part of the settlement.

Kerri White, a spokesperson for DCYF, said the $1.2 million “was projected to cover part of the legal costs associated with the settlement.”

She added, “We cannot comment further at this time.”

In a news release, Kilmartin described the settlement as “a result of their hard-fought negotiations.”

“[The parties] obtained an innovative approach to settling such a lawsuit to improve the lives of the children and their families in our child welfare system in Rhode Island,” Kilmartin said. He added that the settlement gives DCYF’s leaders “flexibility in implementing the agreed upon changes, while providing measurable benchmarks to track DCYF’s progress.”

The case still needs approval by U.S. District Chief Judge William Smith. A hearing has been scheduled for May 9.

U.S. District Judge John McConnell served as a mediator for the negotiations.

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

Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau can be reached at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau