WASHINGTON -- Children in troubled homes may not use federal law to help them remain with their families or return to them rather than live in foster care homes, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The 7-2 decision gave a narrow reading to a 12-year-old law that Congress passed to try to reduce states' use of foster care when children are faced with abuse or neglect at home.
Under that federal law, states may get federal aid for foster care and adoption programs, but only on condition that they try to keep troubled families together, or reunite them if children have been placed temporarily in foster homes.
When abused or neglected children are allowed to stay with their families, a social worker -- a child welfare specialist -- is named to try to ensure that abuse or neglect does not happen again.
At issue in yesterday's court ruling was whether the government alone can enforce the family unity requirement on states by threatening to cut off funds, or whether the children involved may go to federal court to enforce that requirement.
The court ruled that the children have been given no right to sue, either under the 1980 law itself, or under federal civil rights law.
The 1980 law, the court said, created no specific rights for children to stay at home or be reunited with their families; it merely required the states to file plans promising "reasonable" efforts to preserve family unity.
Congress, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote, "left a great deal of discretion" to the states to decide how they would live up to their obligation to keep children at home, or promptly return them there from temporary residence in a foster home.
There is no right for children to ask a federal court to second-guessthe states, the ruling indicated.
The case involved children in Illinois, who went to court in 1988 to complain that state officials were not obeying their obligations under the family unity clauses of the 1980 law. A lower federal court upheld their right to sue, ruled in their favor and ordered state officials to act quickly to name social workers for each case so that more children could remain or be reunited with their natural families.
Child welfare officials from 28 states, including Maryland, and the Bush administration urged the Supreme Court to rule that the federal government's fund cutoff remedy was the only means to enforce state duties.
That is exactly what the court concluded, saying that the 1980 law imposed "only a rather generalized duty on the states, to be enforced not by private individuals, but by" the federal government, using its power to reduce or eliminate federal aid.
Joining in the Rehnquist opinion in Suter vs. Artist M. (No. 90-1488) were Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas and Byron R. White.
Justice Harry A. Blackmun dissented, in an opinion joined by Justice John Paul Stevens.