WASHINGTON -- In a decision that could have implications around the country, a federal judge has ruled that the District of Columbia's inability to operate an adequate foster care system for children from troubled families is an abuse of the children's rights.
The U.S. District judge, Thomas F. Hogan, said yesterday that children placed in a local government's foster care program have a constitutional as well as statutory right to be well cared for and kept free from harm.
It was the first time a federal judge had made such a ruling. It is only binding in the city of Washington but could serve as a model for several other jurisdictions in which similar lawsuits are pending, including New York City, Philadelphia, Kansas and Louisiana.
Citing the constitutional right to due process, Hogan ruled that children placed in government-managed foster care programs are entitled to be free from harm. He said his decision was similar to the Supreme Court's ruling in 1982 that people committed to mental institutions have a constitutional right to be well cared for.
His decision in the suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union also was based on a 1980 federal statute that requires adequate foster care in programs that receive federal subsidies. The judge did not specify a remedy but asked the city to come up with a plan by May 9.
Larry Brown, a spokesman for the District of Columbia, said no decision had yet been reached on whether to appeal the ruling. The suit was filed against the administration of Mayor Marion Barry.
Brown said that Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon, who was elected last year, "recognizes the need to move aggressively to make short-term and long-term improvements in the Department of Human Services."
Proponents of better foster care said yesterday's decision could be the first step in giving federal courts formal authority over some child welfare systems in the same manner that other federal judges have taken over state prison and mental health systems, contending they violate federal guarantees of due process.