Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Tennessee foster care suit: It’s 10pm. Do you know who your plaintiffs are?

Andrew, Kenneth, Nancy, Donna, and Kiera have several things in common.

All of them are very young. Andrew is 23 months old, Kenneth is two years old, Nancy is 4, Donna is 5 and Kiera is 6.

All of them were torn from their families "on or about November 6, 2009" based solely on the word of a caseworker who told a judge they were in danger. None of their parents had a chance to defend themselves or fight for their children first. In all cases, the allegation against the parents is "neglect."

All of them are from Anderson County, Tennessee, a county with a total child population of only about 16,000.

And, though, of course, they don't know it, all of them are suing the State of Tennessee.

Andrew, Kenneth, Nancy, Donna, and Kiera are the "supplemental named plaintiffs" in the lawsuit brought by the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" as it attempts to block a state law that ever-so-slightly counterbalances the enormous incentives to needlessly tear apart families. (The law is discussed in detail in previous posts to this Blog.)

There is nothing unusual about having children as "named plaintiffs." Depending on what you want to change it can be difficult to sue a child welfare system without them (though in the many other such suits I've read, at least some of the young people were old enough to understand what was going on.) And in this particular case, the first time CR tried to sue over this law, using the children it already had as plaintiffs in a longstanding settlement against the Tennessee system, the judge effectively said they couldn't use the same plaintiffs this time; they'd have to find new ones.

Of course the children didn't make the decision to sue the State of Tennessee themselves. That was done by someone deemed capable of representing their "best interests" – known as their "next friend." For four of the five children in this suit their "next friend" is their guardian ad litem, a lawyer named to argue for whatever the lawyer thinks is in their "best interests," for the fifth, the decision was made by the child's CASA (which figures).

But how could they possibly know that joining this particular suit was in the children's best interests? And how could CR?

Normally, the stories of named plaintiffs are carefully researched. Then, at least, the lawyers can be confident in their own minds that the relief they seek will help these particular children. And, of course, the stories of the named plaintiffs usually are a key part of persuading the judge. Lawyers look for the most horrible examples of whatever injustice it is they are suing about. So if the issue is, say, abuse in foster care, the named plaintiffs will have endured prolonged, horrifying abuse, outlined in detail when the lawyers file their complaint. In Oklahoma, for example, CR just released a 163-page report on the horrors that befell the named plaintiffs in their class-action suit in that state.

But in the Tennessee case, according to CRs Complaint, the only thing we know is that these children were taken from their homes based on the word of a caseworker, and that decision was promptly rubber-stamped by a judge whose record indicates a fanaticism about child removal. (Remember, Anderson County is the one where children are taken from their parents at a rate four to five times the state average, which would make it a contender for Child Removal Capital of America.) And there certainly wasn't much time for investigating the cases or getting to know the children. Having been taken away "on or about November 6, 2009" they were already named plaintiffs by November 9, when the Complaint was filed.

So now, with no indication that CR's lawyers have ever met their new "clients" and with no indication if they even know whether these children ever should have been removed at all, CR is using these children to increase the odds that their time in foster care will be prolonged.

CR would argue that they're just trying to free the judge from any extraneous considerations, like money. But CR is remarkably inconsistent about that. Children taken from their homes routinely are placed with private agencies that are paid for every day they hold those children in foster care. Yet I know of no instance in which CR ever has sued to stop those kinds of financial incentives. So the real effect if CR wins, using these children as their named plaintiffs, would be to make sure that any and all "external" incentives, personal, political and financial, push judges in only one direction – taking away the children and stashing them in foster care for a long, long time.

It's possible, of course, that foster care might be the best thing that's ever happened to Andrew, Kenneth, Nancy, Donna, and Kiera. Maybe they really were in imminent danger and there was no other alternative but to remove them without so much as giving their parents a hearing; maybe their removal and continued placement in foster care will save their lives. But the odds are very much against that. Research tells us that If, indeed, foster care is prolonged, chances are only one of these five children will do well as a young adult. The odds are at least one, probably two of them will be abused in foster care itself. The odds that they will get in trouble with the law and be unable to hold a job and the odds that Nancy, Donna, and Kiera will become pregnant as teenagers are greater than had they been left in their own homes.

So at a minimum, didn't the lawyers at CR have an obligation to find out all about Andrew, Kenneth, Nancy, Donna, and Kiera before using them to seek a change in state law that would increase the odds that they will stay in foster care? Didn't they have an obligation to find out if that change would be best for these specific children before suing in their names?

If, in fact, CR wins its lawsuit and if these children wind up better off in foster care, they should know that CR's lawyers helped keep them there so they can thank them. But if CR wins and foster care turns out to be a disaster, as it so often does, then Andrew, Kenneth, Nancy, Donna, and Kiera should know that among those who share responsibility are some lawyers from New York City who probably never knew them and probably knew little about them when they turned them into "named plaintiffs."