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Guest MINDSETTER™ Anne Grant: Fix DCYF Dysfunction and Stop Family Law Malpractice

Sunday, August 09, 2015

 

As the Governor and her appointees tackle the overwhelming dysfunction at DCYF, Rhode Island’s Supreme Court must confront family law malpractice that exploits this chaos.

After I came to Rhode Island in 1988 to head a nonprofit serving battered women and their children, we examined our program’s successes and failures in order to develop a long-range plan and expand our mission. In a state where domestic violence and child sex abuse are litigated in civil court and seldom prosecuted as crimes, victims must raise money for their own defense. A coterie of well-connected lawyers and clinicians enrich themselves until children turn 18, often working hand-in-glove with DCYF’s legal department.

A current example: a DCYF investigator came to a home on a Friday night in March to remove three children, ages 3, 7, and 13, due to a mistaken police tip that their mother, whom I will call “Joan”, was dealing drugs. She was not, though she says she had abused drugs until her first pregnancy.

She completed a drug program at Women and Infants Hospital in 2002 and has worked with a counselor since to stay clean. Her husband died three years ago, making her children especially attractive to DCYF for their Social Security benefits.

A month of desperate phone calls brought no response from her DCYF caseworker when Joan discovered my email online. I went to her home and scanned her documents, including her handwritten appeal to DCYF. She thought she needed her attorney’s approval before submitting it, but he, too, did not return her calls.

At the police station, I learned that a detective had mistakenly identified Joan as a probation-violator. After my inquiry, he wrote a supplemental report to correct the mistake, and I immediately emailed that to Joan and her attorney.

Her attorney remained hard to reach. By the time I finally spoke with him at the courthouse, Joan’s children had come home after three months of trauma. But DCYF had canceled their medical insurance and siphoned off their SSI payments. Joan feared losing their home and car.    

Joan’s lawyer patronized her: “It’s wonderful when clients do everything they’re supposed to.”

My jaw dropped. “What about lawyers who don’t do anything they’re supposed to?” I thought, biting my tongue.

My mind was full of questions I was afraid to ask. Why had he forced Joan into debt for a retainer of $2,500 (his fee: $300 an hour) if she was eligible for a public defender? Why didn’t he return her phone calls? Why didn’t he instantly appeal her children’s removal? Why didn’t he bring an emergency motion with the false police report? Why didn’t he stop DCYF from seizing the children’s SSI payments? Why did DCYF fail to investigate the homes where they placed the children? Why had a strange man walked her daughter to school and told the girl he had been arrested several times and just got out of prison?

Why had a foster mother arranged for dental surgery and removed the youngest child’s four front teeth without consulting their own dentist or mother?

My mind was full of questions, but I asked only one: “Will you sue DCYF?”

“No.” Then our conversation took a bizarre turn as he tried to recall a movie, “Frankly, my dear….” He caught himself.

In the courtroom, the caseworker told the judge that Joan was doing everything required to keep her children. The judge continued the case until November for her decision.

Emerging from the courtroom, Joan’s lawyer was still trying to recall the movie. He asked a colleague in the corridor (who, ironically, a few years ago, had been briefly suspended from the public defenders’ list for indigent clients when the court found him billing the fund for more than twenty hours a day, more than $220,000 in two years.) He knew the answer.

“Gone With the Wind. Of course.”

Joan’s lawyer happily mulled over Clark Gable’s deeply satisfying words to a desperate woman: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”  


Anne Grant ([email protected]) writes occasionally about family law malpractice.

 

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