Court Weighs Federal Suits Over Child-Welfare Services

By Mark Walsh — December 11, 1991 3 min read

The U.S. Supreme Court last week considered the issue of whether abused and neglected children have the right to sue state officials in federal court over the adequacy of child-welfare services.

In a case from Illinois, state officials and the Bush Administration argued that the federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, which provides funds to the states to encourage efforts to keep children out of foster care, does not give abused children a right to file federal lawsuits over such issues as the speedy assignment of caseworkers.

But a lawyer representing a group of abused and neglected children who sued Illinois child-welfare officials told the High Court that the state had “utterly failed” to comply with its plan for making “reasonable efforts” to keep children out of foster care by placing them in adoptive care or returning them to their families.

The state “regularly and systematically deprived these [children] of caseworkers ... for weeks and months at a time,” said Michael G. Dsida, a lawyer with the office of the Cook County public guardian.

The case, Suter v. Artist M. (Case No. 90-1488), has attracted a wide degree of interest from other states, child-welfare advocates, and juvenile-court lawyers.

A friend-of-the-court brief filed by 38 states and the District of Columbia urges the High Court not to authorize federal lawsuits over enforcement of the federal child-welfare law.

“The states are striving to deal effectively with the growing problem of abused and neglected children,” the brief contends. “Children would be better served by strengthening the existing system of state courts and state administrative reviews than by creating a new layer of federal judicial oversight.”

‘Vague and Amorphous’ Law

The Illinois case stems from a 1988 lawsuit filed on behalf of a class of abused and neglected children against officials of the state’s department of children and family services.

After initially giving state officials time to make changes in the child-welfare system, a federal judge in Chicago ordered the department to assign a caseworker within three days of the time at which a juvenile court placed a child in state custody.

In a divided opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district-court order.

State officials appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which accepted the case to determine whether the Congress intended for the provisions of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act to be enforced through private federal lawsuits.

Christina M. Tchen, a lawyer representing Illinois, told the Justices that the law “is simply too vague and amorphous to create a federal right” to sue.

The state contends that enough oversight is provided by the authority of the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to withhold federal funds if a state’s plan for child-welfare services is inadequate.

The lower-court rulings will open up states to an “avalanche of litigation challenging the minutiae of daily child-welfare decision-making,” the state argued in its brief.

The federal government gave the states about $1.5 billion in fiscal 1990 for “foster-care maintenance payments,” according to the brief filed by Solicitor General Kenneth W. Starr. Illinois received more than $65 million of that amount.

A decision in the case is expected by July.

Employment Decisions Upheld

Meanwhile, in other business, the High Court last week:

  • Declined to review a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit upholding the Denver school board’s firing of a teacher for misconduct. The case was Romero v. Aguavo (No. 91-601).
  • Let stand a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit that said a white professor at Cleveland State University failed to show that his denial of tenure was racially motivated. The case was Evans v. Goodman (No. 91-600).

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A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 1991 edition of Education Week as Court Weighs Federal Suits Over Child-Welfare Services