The nonprofit litigation group Children’s Rights (CR) announced lawsuits against New Hampshire and Maine’s child welfare systems, with both filings involving mental health treatment for older youth in foster care.
Children’s Rights and the legal aid organization Maine Equal Justice filed a federal lawsuit in Portland alleging that Maine has systematically failed for many years to correct problems with overuse of powerful mental health drugs. State officials deny those claims.
Psychotropics are powerful drugs that affect emotions and behavior and include anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants, mood stabilizers, stimulants and antipsychotics. It’s not clear just how many of those children are on psychotropics, but the lawsuit alleges that the state knows hundreds of them are exposed to life-threatening risk because of poor program management.
The lawsuit asserts that the state’s medical record-keeping is allegedly so sloppy that caregivers and providers are left to operate in the dark. In addition, the state doesn’t adhere to an adequate informed consent policy meant to ensure that children fully understand what drugs are being prescribed and why, nor allow them a meaningful way to object.
Finally, the suit charges, Maine doesn’t consistently ensure that drug regimens get a secondary review to safeguard children from outlier and other dangerous prescription practices.
The lawsuit was filed by national nonprofit litigator Children’s Rights, legal aid organization Maine Equal Justice and a law firm. The respondents are Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne M. Lambrew, a former Obama health official, and Todd A. Landry, director of the state Office of Child and Family Services.
The plaintiffs are five boys and a girl ages 7 to 17 years old. The legal complaint included a request to convert to a class action that would add similarly situated children in Maine’s care as plaintiffs.
A Maine health department spokesperson accused New York-based Children’s Rights of being more interested in filing lawsuits than in working with the state to help the plaintiffs.
“If Children’s Rights … cared about the welfare of these six children or others, it would have reported these allegations to Maine DHHS through the appropriate established channels, allowing us to immediately investigate and take appropriate action if needed,” Jackie Farwell told the Associated Press.
Child welfare officials in New Hampshire were equally angered by CR’s suit, also filed this week, alleging that the state was “unnecessarily warehousing” teenagers in foster care in institutions instead of placing them in family settings, especially those with diagnosed mental health conditions.
Citing the state’s own figures, as reported to the federal government, the suit states that 70% of all youth in DCYF care ages 14 through 17 were housed in so-called congregate-care facilities, compared with an average of 31% for the comparable age group in all other states.
When those same older New Hampshire foster youth have been diagnosed with mental health problems, the comparison is even worse, the suit alleges. In 2019, more than 90% of those kids were placed in some sort of group home or institution, compared with roughly 40% nationally. Less than 8% of New Hampshire’s older youth with diagnoses were placed in a family foster home, one-sixth of the national average.
These youth are also shuffled from placement to placement — including to out-of-state facilities — at an “alarming” rate, the suit alleges.
Research shows that youth fare far better in the short and long terms when they are placed in safe, stable family settings, a goal that’s reflected in state and federal foster care laws.
“Too many older youth in New Hampshire are subject to unnecessary warehousing by a state system that prioritizes institutionalization over family and community,” said Shereen White, senior staff attorney at Children’s Rights, one of several groups that brought the lawsuit. “The physical, emotional and mental harms associated with placement in congregate settings are well known and lead to tragic outcomes including homelessness, unemployment, incarceration and a lack of educational attainment.”
The difficulty of maintaining social distancing in group settings during the coronavirus pandemic only heightens the problem, experts say.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) clapped back hard in a statement on his office’s website, dismissing Children’s Rights as a “special interest group” backed by Wall Street law firms. He was “disappointed” that the other groups joined Children’s Rights because they are aware of the “great” strides the state has made.
“We have made more progressive reforms to our state’s child welfare system than any administration in history,” he stated.
Sununu noted several initiatives and positive trends in New Hampshire in recent years, including providing stipends to families who adopt older youth and the record 268 children who were adopted from DCYF care in 2019. The statement does not specifically address efforts to help older foster youth with mental health needs.
The lawsuit also alleges that New Hampshire routinely denies older youth legal representation when crucial decisions about their fate are being discussed, and asserts that they have virtually no say in their case management plans.
The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU of New Hampshire, the Disability Rights Center-NH, New Hampshire Legal Assistance, and the national advocacy group Children’s Rights, and a law firm. The defendants are Sununu; Health Commissioner Lori Shibinette; DCYF Director Joseph Ribsam; New Hampshire Medicaid Services Director Henry Lipman; and Administrative Office of the Courts Director Christopher Keating.
Children’s Rights has now been involved in class-action litigation against every state in New England except for Vermont. Settlements in the cases filed against Connecticut (1989) and Rhode Island (2007) are ongoing; a 2010 filing against Massachusetts was lost on appeal in 2014.