D.R.I.: systemic foster care claims survive abstention and § 1983 challenge

The district court for Rhode Island refused to dismiss, under Younger abstention, claims relating to caseloads and training of foster care workers, but granted the agency’s motion to dismiss claims regarding rates of adoptions and length of time in foster care.  The court held that Rooker-Feldman abstention was inapplicable.  The court then determined that provisions of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act were enforceable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, including the claim of noncompliance with the state plan.  Sam M. v. Chafee, 2011 WL 2899213 (D.R.I. July 20, 2011)(No. 07–241–ML). Chief Judge Mary Lisi (Clinton) delivered the opinion of the court.  Children’s Rights, New York, was among the counsel for the children.  We previously reported on the opinion of the First Circuit upholding the plaintiffs’ use of next friends to represent the foster children in this case.  Sam M. ex rel. Elliott v. Carcieri, 608 F.3d 77 (1st Cir. 2010).

The plaintiffs alleged that the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) violated their federal rights under the First, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as violated certain rights under Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (AACWA) of the Social Security Act, and breached their contractual obligations under the Rhode Island State Plans prepared for the Department of Health and Human Services. The defendants contended that the plaintiffs lacked subject matter jurisdiction and failed to make a claim upon which relief could be granted.

The court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, as moot, the claims brought by five of the seven plaintiffs who had been adopted during the litigation.  The identical claims and requests for relief asserted by the two plaintiffs still in the DCYF system remained.

The court then considered the defendant’s claim that the abstention doctrine required the court to decline invading the province of the State’s Family Court.  Under Younger, abstention is appropriate when jurisdiction would interfere with a state judicial proceeding. Rossi v. Gemma, 489 F.3d 26, 34–35 (1st Cir. 2007).  The court dismissed the claims requesting an increase in the rate of adoptions, decrease in the number of placements per child, and decrease in institutionalization and length of time in foster care, as remedies that would interfere with the ongoing jurisdiction of Family Court. However, because the plaintiffs did not seek to overturn the rulings in any individual cases, the court upheld jurisdiction over the proposed remedies of caseload caps for DCYF workers, providing adequate training to DCYF workers, and increasing the array of placement options.  These claims sought to ensure that the Family Court’s orders and determinations could be carried out. Although the welfare of children in the foster system is a state interest, the court declined to extend Younger to the second set of claims, noting the difficulties in adequately raising the plaintiffs’ claims in Family Court proceedings.  The court concluded: “while the plaintiffs do not appear statutorily precluded from bringing claims in Family Court that may amount to constitutional violations, it does not appear, under the alleged circumstances of this case, that the Family Court would present an adequate forum to address those claims and to afford complete relief to the plaintiff children.”

Under the Rooker–Feldman doctrine, federal courts lack subject matter jurisdiction over complaints that essentially invite federal courts to review and reverse unfavorable state court decisions. Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indust. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 283 (2005).  Because the plaintiffs sought systemic relief and not reversal of individual determinations by the family court, the federal court refused to abstain under Rooker-Feldman.

The court then turned to the enforceability of the AACWA provisions under § 1983.  The plaintiffs’ limited their claims to AACWA provisions requiring the state to provide a case plan for a permanent home, 42 U .S.C. § 671(a)(16), and to provide adequate foster care maintenance payments.  The district court noted that in Suter v. Artist M, 503 U.S. 347 (1992), the Supreme Court had found § 671(a)(15) to be unenforceable under § 1983, but then Congress passed the Suter-fix, 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-2, overruling the portion of Suter which found a provision unenforceable based on its inclusion in a list of state plan requirements.  The court further stated that Gonzaga University v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273 (2002), “tightened the test” for a § 1983 claim.

The court held that the relevant AACWA provisions satisfied Gonzaga, because they contained rights-creating language, addressing “each child.”  Agreeing with another decision in the First Circuit, Connor B. v. Patrick, 2011 WL 31343 (D.Mass. 2011), the Rhode Island court found that the provisions “demonstrate a focus on the specific needs of each child rather than a systemwide or aggregate focus.” In addition to the individually focused language, the provisions used mandatory language that was neither vague nor amorphous.  Finally, there is nothing in the AACWA to indicate that Congress intended to preclude private causes of action.

The court questioned the viability of the plaintiffs’ contract claim which alleges that the foster care children can enforce the State Plan as third party beneficiaries of the contract between the federal and state government.  Although the court expressed doubts that the plaintiffs could establish that the State Plan constituted a contract, it declined to dismiss the breach of contract claim because the plaintiffs’ claims of alleged non-compliance with the State Plan remains viable in their §1983 claim.

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