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Foster Care Class Action Not Upset by Wal-Mart

(CN) - Disbanding the class of women suing Wal-Mart has no bearing on the future of allegations that the Massachusetts foster care system placed thousands of children in life-threatening situations, a federal judge ruled.

Abuse among children in the care of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) happens at nearly four times the national rate, according to the 2010 class action filed by six alleged victims.

The complaint described numerous cases of children killed or suffering severe physical abuse at the hands of foster parents, none of whom allegedly faced state monitoring. The children asked for remedial relief, including limiting the caseload of foster care case workers, enhanced training, and a review of the state's foster care system.

A federal judge certified the class in February 2011, defining it as "all children who are now or will be in the foster care custody of the DCF as a result of abuse or neglect."

But that decision came into question three months later as the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, which decertified a proposed class of 1.5 million female employees whom the justices found lacked sufficient commonality.

DCF moved to decertify the foster children class, arguing that "pursuant to the holding in Wal-Mart, the dissimilarities among the 8,500 class members - including differences in social worker assignments, goals, physical and mental health needs, and length of stay in DCF custody - make class certification improper."

U.S. District Judge Michael Ponsor in Springfield, Mass., refused last week, finding that DCF had exceeded the 14-day deadline to appeal certification and that his original conclusion was sound.

Unlike the plaintiffs in Wal-Mart, who sought damages on behalf of 1.5 million women employed at thousands of stores across the country, "this class of 8,500 children is within the custody of a single agency in a single state," Ponsor wrote.

DCF characterized the children's claims as harms "caused by individual social workers who exercise wide discretion in determining what is in the best interest of the child."

But the court found that the pleadings focused on the systemic departmental deficiencies that place children in harmful situations, not on individual case workers. "These systemic shortcomings provide the 'glue' that unites plaintiffs' claims," Ponsor wrote.

The judge also disagreed with DCF's argument that "no relief is possible where each class member has different needs for DCF services, placements, and visitation."

In Wal-Mart, the Supreme Court held that plaintiffs' claims for monetary relief were improper, whereas "plaintiffs' claims in this case are limited to injunctive relief," the 19-page decision states said.

"Wal-Mart's commonality analysis is easily distinguishable from this case and does not disturb the court's original order," Posner concluded.

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