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INVESTIGATION: State Fails Federal Goal on Child Protection Cases

Friday, March 08, 2013


The state Family Court settles less than half the child protection cases assigned to it every six months, falling far short of federal and state deadlines and undermining the long-term well-being of the children it is charged with helping, a GoLocalProv investigation has found.

In 2011—the last year for which complete data is available—the Rhode Island Family Court settled 39 percent of cases involving the abuse or neglect of a child within six months. It disposed 49 percent of such cases in the prior year, well below the 65-percent goal that is established in state law and federal guidelines.

“The fact of the matter is that we have systemic delays,” said Charles Greenwood, a local attorney.

Behind the statistics lie the stories of thousands of local children stuck in the limbo of a foster family, a stay with a relative, or a group home as small teams of attorneys and judges decide their fate in cases that sometimes linger can linger on for more than a year.

Delays affect long-term well-being of children

The protracted delays do not affect the immediate health or safety of children at risk: those in imminent danger can be removed immediately from their homes regardless of the status of court proceedings, according to Kevin Aucoin, the deputy director of the Department of Children, Youth, and Families.

Instead, it’s their long-term well-being that is undermined when child protection cases are delayed, according to sources familiar with the process.

A major goal in child protection cases is the reunification of families, said Craig Berke, a spokesman for the state courts. Cases that are delayed decrease the chances that will happen, according to Berke.

Attorneys familiar with the process said it’s the children who ultimately suffer when cases drag out.

“I think the children who can’t go home safely in a timely manner are the ones who end up being harmed,” said Susan Fink, a partner with Greenwood in a firm that specializes in adoption cases and other Family Court-related issues.

Fink suggested that the longest cases, which can stretch over a few years, can be confusing for children, especially those who are newborns or toddlers and may bond with foster mothers and fathers who may not end up being their parents once matters are settled in court. “It’s not knowing where they belong,” Fink said.

Often, those most frustrated by the process are pre-adoptive parents, according to Fink and Greenwood. And it can sometimes be hard for a foster parent to shield children from that anxiety, they added.

State official defends system

Aucoin agreed that delays can snarl state efforts to find a permanent home for children—either with a legal guardian, an adoptive family, or back home with their biological family. “Obviously the delay in adjudication of child protective petitions may have an impact on the permanency planning process for children,” Aucoin said.

But he said Rhode Island ultimately does well when it comes to finding permanent homes for abused and neglected children. He said the state has consistently ranked first or second in the nation over the last few years in terms of the percentage of adoptions completed within a two-year period, based on a nationwide assessment by a federal agency.

“At the end of the day, when you look at the results, Rhode Island has done very well,” Aucoin said. (See below for link to an excerpt from report.)

Court ends marriages faster than it fixes families

The delays in child protection cases become all the more conspicuous when compared to other types of cases that Family Court handles. In 2011, the court adjudicated 59 percent of cases involving wayward or delinquent juveniles within six months. For those entering a non-court diversion program, the case disposition rate was 78 percent within a month and a half.

But the speediest cases are divorces. In 2011, three quarters of divorces were resolved within six months, as compared with less than half for child protection cases—despite the fact that the court had ten times as many divorce cases as the other. At nine months, the disparity is 86 percent to 60 percent, with more than ten times the case load.

Family Court also set different goals for the two types of cases. For divorces, the court endeavors to resolve all of them within a year. For child protection cases, it’s 65 percent by six months.

The six-month goal is based on guidelines in federal law, which stipulates that no federal funding will be available for foster care for child who has been removed from his or her home longer than 180 days—unless a judge has determined that such a placement is in the best interests of the child.

Chris Plante, the regional director for the National Organization for Marriage, described the data as “alarming.”

“This is about child well-being—how do we provide our children with the safest and the most nurturing environment possible?” said Plante, who worked for two years in the child welfare field in the Chicago area. Part of that nurturing process, he added, is putting children in a safe and consistent family structure.

He said the data shows that the public and policymakers have their priorities backwards. “What this data indicates to me is that Rhode Island is putting more emphasis on the desires of adults than the needs of children,” Plante said.

However, Berke, the court spokesman, said there should be no expectation that child protection cases are processed as quickly as divorce cases, given key differences between the two. Perhaps most significant, according to Berke, is that the involvement of at least one of the parties is voluntary in divorce cases.

Divorces in which both husband and wife agree that it’s time end their marriage move through court even faster, according to Berke. Out of the total number of divorce cases in a given year, an estimated three quarters of them are uncontested, he said.

Numerous causes behind delays

The longer timetable that marks child protection proceedings is closely linked to the inherent complexity of cases that involve the often knotted fabric of family life. “I think when you are dealing with families, time is one factor you have to building into the equation,” Greenwood said.

Such complexity means a larger-than-normal cohort of attorneys are attached to cases—up to four different sets of attorneys, according to Berke, including: the court-appointed advocates for the child, the legal counsel for DCYF, the defense for one or both parents, and the attorney for the foster parent.

A wide range of specific factors are driving delays.

Sometimes the biological father of a child can’t be found and sometimes there are difficulties in producing witnesses. In some cases, formal notification of all the parties involved in the case runs into unforeseen issues, Berke said. Also, discovery in these cases is so voluminous as to make the 180-day goal all but impossible, according to Greenwood.

Yet another wrinkle in the timeframe: cases where parental rights are terminated are automatically appealed to the state Supreme Court, according to Berke. “That is an involved process,” he said.

Further compounding matters are two vacancies on the Family Court that have gone unfilled for two years. “We feel as though more judges could be helpful,” Greenwood said.

But Greenwood and Fink said they don’t blame Family Court. “A lot of it is disorganization and disinformation from DCYF,” Fink said. They also said the new social service system to which DCYF switched last summer also has slowed things down.

Aucoin disagreed, saying that the new system has enhanced the department’s ability to offer services to children, youth, and families. He also noted that since the system was implemented last year, it would not have affected the timeliness of cases in 2011.

Ultimately, Greenwood and Fink said much of the blame rests at the highest levels of state policymakers and their decisions on the state budget. “Funding is a huge problem,” Fink said. “This is what happens at the bottom—it all gums up.”

Related Files:

Click here to check out the Federal report on Rhode Island adoptions for abused and neglected children.


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