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U.S. Court Declares Foster-Care System In District of Columbia Unconstitutional

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In what experts say is the first ruling of its kind, a federal judge has declared the District of Columbia's foster-care system unconstitutional.

Ruling on a class action filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan said "the District's dereliction of its responsibilities to the children in its custody" violated not only their statutory rights under District law but also their constitutional right to be protected from harm.

Marcia Robinson Lowry, director of the a.c.l.u.'s Children's Rights Project, said the ruling is "the first time that a child-welfare system has been found guilty of violating the law and the first time a federal court has squarely decided that children's constitutional rights in a foster-care system have been violated."

The 102-page opinion, which documented numerous cases of children "relegated to entire childhoods spent in foster-care drift," could be influential in similar lawsuits pending across the country, Ms. Lowry said.

Although child-welfare systems in many jurisdictions have faced legal challenges in recent years, the Washington case is the first to be decided.

The most extensive court intervention so far has been in Connecticut, where a three-person panel, including a federal judge, was formed last year to oversee the state's child-welfare system.

Child-welfare experts estimate that about 360,000 children in the United States are in foster care and that the number is rapidly rising.

Acknowledging that previous rulings had not provided a clear precedent defining the constitutional rights of children in foster care, Judge Hogan applied principles from a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling concerning persons in mental institutions.

Among the grievances against Washington's Department of Human Services cited in Judge Hogan's ruling were its failure to investigate reports of child abuse or neglect in a timely manner, provide services to families to help prevent foster-care placements, and appropriately place children living in unsafe conditions.

The court also said the agency failed to develop appropriate case plans for foster children or to move them "into a situation of permanency" by returning them to their homes or freeing them for adoption.

Court records showed that 2,166 children were in Washington's foster-care system in 1988, and that, on average, children stay in the system 4.8 years, more than twice the national average.

The court also found that children in the custody of the d.h.s.'s Child and Family Services Division have consistently remained in voluntary or emergency care for several months beyond the specified time for filing a neglect petition or determining that placement is in their best interest.

The judge also cited "excessive" caseloads and deficiencies in recordkeeping, case plans, and services to children placed in foster care.

As a result of such problems, he said, children on whose behalf the suit was filed suffered psychological, emotional, and physical harm.

Judge Hogan said the "failures of an ineptly managed child-welfare system" affected thousands of children who, because of family poverty, health, or substance abuse, rely on the city for basic shelter and care.

The case "is about a lost generation of children whose tragic plight is being repeated every day," he said.

A spokesman for Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon said a new director recently appointed to the d.h.s. was working with legal and foster-care experts to address problems out8lined in the case, which was originally filed two years ago against former Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr.

"The Mayor's reaction was that it was tragic that it took a court case for the District government to focus on its responsibilities," the spokesman, Vada Manager, said.

At a time when budget cutbacks have strained an already overburdened child-welfare system, experts said they hoped the ruling would help spur investments in foster care.

"It will basically push the political system to do the right thing,'' said David S. Liederman, executive director of the Child Welfare League of America.

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