A coalition of advocates has filed a federal class action lawsuit against North Carolina’s child welfare agency for alleged overreliance on institutional care for foster youth with disabilities, especially children of color.
Foster youth with disabilities are “unnecessarily segregated” from their communities and placed in “heavily restrictive, and often clinically inappropriate” institutions, the suit states, when many of them could be better served living with families and being treated with community-based resources.
“DHHS is failing hundreds of children with disabilities in foster care, warehousing them in dangerous, expensive, damaging institutions,” Virginia Knowlton Marcus, Chief Executive Officer of Disability Rights North Carolina, said in a press release.
The disability rights group filed the suit along with the local chapter of the NAACP and the national advocacy organization Children’s Rights. Lawyers from the Charlotte-based firm Moore & Van Allen have joined the organizations to represent the plaintiffs.
Four individual youth named in the suit contend that they and those in similar circumstances face mental and physical abuse, bullying by peers and staff, and overmedication in these centers. Even facilities where state investigators have documented abuse concerns and considered revoking licenses remain approved for placement.
More than 500 North Carolina foster youth are placed in these institutions — called psychiatric residential treatment facilities, or PRTFs — each year, with more than a third sent to centers out of state, according to the complaint. These youth “wrongfully bear the brunt of the state’s failures” to develop the network of foster families and mental and behavioral health services they need, plaintiffs’ lawyers state.
This practice disproportionately impacts youth of color. The complaint cites data from the Department of Health and Human Services that shows nearly half of youth institutionalized through state funding identify as non-white.
A similar action was taken in Alabama earlier this year. That suit was also led by Children’s Rights along with the local disability rights agency and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
These lawsuits are part of a growing national concern regarding residential treatment for young people in foster care and those with behavioral and mental health challenges. Numerous investigations by the media and disability rights watchdog groups have uncovered widespread abuse, resulting in dozens of facility closures and increased scrutiny from federal lawmakers. Earlier this year, two U.S. senators launched an investigation into four of the biggest national providers of youth residential treatment.
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