Massachusetts officials must improve foster care or face the loss of $3.5 million in federal funds. U.S. District Judge Robert A. Keeton ruled earlier this week. The decision, by linking foster care child abuse with excessive social worker case loads, set a major precedent.
Keeton, who wept during the trial when attorneys described the abuse of a three-month old child, told the Department of Social Services (DSS) to enforce limits on worker caseloads, establish individual plans for each child and review those plans periodically.
The ruling will directly affect 8000 children in foster and group care homes and indirectly 20.000 youngsters living at home whose parents are receiving services from the DSS.
Paula Mackin, director of the Juvenile Law Project, said her organization had filed the class action suit because some DSS workers were grossly overburdened, having to handle more than 30 cases simultaneously. The new limits would keep that at 20.
In a statement issued after the ruling, DSS commissioner Mary Jane England said. "My first impression is that the federal court order is largely consistent with the staffing patterns which this agency has designed and implemented, with the regulations and policies of the agency, and the agency's mission."
Mackin however, said DSS officials were uncooperative during the trial and had "vigorously fought" the plaintiff's suit.
As an example, she noted that Ronald Newcome, a social worker, was fired by England two days after he testified. Subsequently, England was held in contempt of court for harassment.
In addition, Macking said England and other DSS officials altered documents that were used as evidence.
Neither England nor Newcome was available for comment yesterday.
The DSS was created in July 1980 to replace the Department of Public Welfare (DPW), which had a history of foster care negligence Michael Ripple director of communications at the DSS, said the department inherited many of DPW's problems and has been successfully struggling to overcome them.
Ripple also said evidence used in the case often predated the existence of DSS. "There were many well-publicized foster care abuses prior to 1980, which is why DSS was created to begin with," he said. He added that "those are the type of examples that were brought before the judge."
Mackin countered, however, that only about 5 percent" of the examples of foster child abuse used as evidence came from before 1980.
And one DSS social worker who asked to remain anonymous said in an interview yesterday that worker caseloads were still much too heavy. He added that, "there is just no way we can adequately keep track of every one in our charge. The will is there, but not the way."
The suit was originally filed in August 1978. But because of numerous preliminary motions, including one to dismiss the case, the trial did not begin until 1981.