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Mass. Foster Care Reform Punted to Legislature

CHICAGO (CN) - The responsibility for fixing Massachusetts' seriously flawed foster care system resides with the state's legislature, not the courts, the 1st Circuit ruled.

The ruling stems from a class action filed against the state by the guardians six foster care children on behalf of the estimated 85,000 children currently enrolled in the program.

Among other problems they cite, the plaintiffs claim that foster care children in Massachusetts are abused at nearly four times the national average, and that several of six child plaintiffs suffered instances of rape, sexual abuse, beatings, force-feeding, and other maltreatment.

"There is a common understanding in this case, shared by both the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the plaintiffs, that the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families' (DCF) administration of the foster care system has flaws and is in need of improvement. In some instances, these flaws have led to horrific and heartbreaking outcomes for children," Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Sandra Lynch wrote at the beginning of in her 40-page opinion.

Among the horror stories detailed in the plaintiff's original complaint are those of Dontel Jeffers, who died at 4, allegedly after his foster mother tied him to a radiator and kicked him until his bladder burst; Acia Johnson, who died at 14, allegedly after her mother's boyfriend lit their house on fire; Isaiah Barboza, 4, who was hospitalized for second-degree burns from being scalded with boiling water; and an unidentified 4-year-old, who needed skin graft surgery after his foster bother burned him with a hair-straightening iron.

Named plaintiff Connor B., now age 13, claims he was sexually abused in his first foster care placement, and has since been moved at least six times. He also spent 4½ months in a locked psychiatric unit when he was 6, according to the complaint.

"The plaintiffs have articulated convincing moral arguments that Massachusetts should do better," Lynch said.

But the children have not shown the state violated their constitutional rights, the court found.

"Having reviewed the voluminous record, the evidence simply does not show that DCF has substantially departed from accepted professional judgment, much less that it departed so substantially as to show that such judgment was not exercised," the three-judge panel ruled.

The children, represented by New York-based non-profit Children's Rights, sought a permanent injunction forbidding the state from violating their civil rights, and remedial relief limiting the caseload of foster care case workers, enhanced education and training, a top-to-bottom review of the state's child-care system to determine the need for additional services and placements, stepped up monitoring of the safety of children in foster care placements, and creation of a new child-parent and sibling visitation program, and other measures.

But while DCF has failed to comport with national standards, it is "actively improving, and the Due Process Clause does not require that the defendants instantly fix all deficiencies in the foster care system," Lynch wrote.

The court said that DCF has fulfilled its professional responsibility by identifying problems, and addressing them in the order it believes best within its budgetary limitations.

"Improvements in the system must come through the normal state political processes. The problems are now for the Governor and legislature of Massachusetts to resolve," Lynch concluded.

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