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High Court Ruling Limits Right To Sue in Foster-Care Cases

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WASHINGTON--The U.S. Supreme Court last week ruled 7 to 2 that a federal child-welfare law does not give children in state foster care a private right to sue in federal court to improve state services or conditions.

The case from Illinois was being watched closely by child-welfare advocates and state officials nationwide because several other such federal suits are pending elsewhere.

In its March 25 ruling in Suter v. Artist M. (Case No. 90-1488), the High Court said the federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, which established a federal-aid program that reimburses the states for administering foster-care and adoption services for abused and neglected children, does not include a right for private parties to sue for enforcement.

The act requires states to make "reasonable efforts'' to keep abused and neglected children out of foster care by placing them in adoptive care or returning them to their families whenever feasible.

That provision has been used by child-welfare advocates as a legal tool to file federal civil-rights lawsuits seeking improvements in state foster-care services.

The decision in the Illinois case is "not helpful to us,'' said Marcia Lowry, the director of the Children's Rights Project of the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is pressing similar lawsuits against five other states and the District of Columbia. But, she added, "it will not affect cases filed on constitutional grounds or state-law grounds.''

"There is a need for systemic approaches to the problems'' in state child-welfare systems, Ms. Lowry said, "because the systems are so dysfunctional. There clearly is a need to challenge these systems from a broader perspective instead of on a case-by-case basis.''

In the Illinois case, a class of abused and neglected children had sued state officials over the alleged inadequacy of child-welfare services in Cook County, which includes Chicago.

A federal judge ordered the state department of children and family services to speed up the assignment of caseworkers after a juvenile court places a child in state custody. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the judge.

Lower Courts Reversed

The High Court last week reversed the lower courts. The majority opinion by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said the federal secretary of health and human services, who oversees the program, may cut off funds to a state if its program is not in compliance with federal regulations. However, the majority held, the act does not authorize private suits.

The "reasonable efforts'' language of the act appears "to impose only a rather generalized duty on the state, to be enforced not by private individuals, but by the secretary'' of H.H.S., the Chief Justice wrote.

The federal Department of Health and Human Services has never objected to child-welfare plans submitted by Illinois.

In a dissent joined by Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, Associate Justice Harry A. Blackmun said the majority opinion was inconsistent with a High Court ruling two years ago that federal civil-rights lawsuits could be filed by private parties to enforce "reasonable'' reimbursements to health-care providers under a federal Medicaid law.

"Federal courts, in innumerable cases, have routinely enforced reasonableness clauses in federal statutes,'' Justice Blackmun wrote. Illinois officials failed to show why the federal adoption law's "reasonableness'' requirement should be different, he said.

In the Illinois case, 38 other states and the District of Columbia had filed papers urging the High Court not to authorize federal civil-rights lawsuits over child-welfare services, saying such suits would create a complicated and costly new layer of oversight for child-welfare efforts.

Nonetheless, in several states where suits have been filed, parties have sought consent decrees or other agreements to improve services.

A separate but related lawsuit over the statewide foster-care system in Illinois was settled in December. That suit established a timetable for reforming the entire state's system of foster care.

Chief Justice Rehnquist said in a footnote to his opinion that the consent decree in the separate suit did not make moot the issue of whether such suits were authorized by the federal child-welfare law.

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