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Family Court judge blasts DCYF for treatment of girls, warns of discrimination lawsuit
Providence Journal - 10/15/2021
PROVIDENCE — In a blistering rebuke of the state's child welfare agency, the chief judge of the Family Court warned lawmakers this week that Rhode Island faces a potential sex discrimination lawsuit because it still has no adequate psychiatric treatment center for girls.
Judge Michael B. Forte told a Senate oversight committee Wednesday that the complacency shown by the Department of Children, Youth and Families to what has been a years-long "crisis" has forced him and the state's child advocate to be out doing something not in their job descriptions: scouring the state for vacant buildings.
"I'm supposed to be adjudicating disputes, not running around looking at buildings," said Forte.
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"I believe DCYF is guilty of systematic sex discrimination in failing to provide comparable services and placements for girls as it does for boys," the judge said.
In a statement Friday afternoon, the DCYF said it has operated a psychiatric residential treatment facility for girls since 2019 in collaboration with St. Mary's Home for Children and is "steadfast in our commitment to identifying additional PRTF services as quickly as possible."
But it was clear Wednesday night that Forte had grown frustrated with the pace of improvement.
The number of girls sent out of state for mental health treatment because Rhode Island has inadequate residential services has increased by 35% in the last year, Forte said.
"And in one of my recent cases the department recommended sending a young woman to Missouri for lack of a closer placement."
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This at a time when one of the missions of DCYF is family reunification.
"At last count, 46 out of 62 children placed out of state are women — 74%," Forte said. "This is outrageous."
In addition, young women languish in the state Training School for juvenile offenders or in local hospitals, Forte said, because there is no less-restrictive and more appropriate place for them. As they wait, they go without the education, psychiatric and other services they are legally entitled to receive.
"We put them up in hotels, anywhere we can stuff them, while the system grinds on," Forte said. "Is this the best Rhode Island can do for its neediest children?"
Forte, a former state senator who makes rare appearances at State House hearings, urged the committee members not to "fall for promises of future action" by DCYF. "Judge the department by its actions not its words."
Child Advocate Jennifer Griffith had her own criticisms of the department.
Griffith said in assessing the needs of the 46 girls now out of state, 40 of them "could be serviced here in Rhode Island if we had a high-end residential program.''
The few others likely need the specialized out-of-state placement. But "there should be no reason why we have so many kids out of state," she said.
And it isn't just residential mental health services for girls that the state isn't providing, Griffith said. "We have nothing" for pregnant teens, "nothing. We had two placements that were closed by DCYF's chief strategy officer five years ago. Not sure why."
Massachusetts has those kinds of residential services for teen moms, and they pay "one-third the price" Rhode Island does for having to keep a teenage mother and her baby in foster care, she said.
"There's no reason we couldn't do that here. No reason whatsoever."
Acting DCYF Director Kevin Aucoin sat between Forte and Griffith at the hearing table Wednesday and quietly listened as the judge and the child advocate faulted his department's response to the situation.
Earlier this year, Aucoin advocated for money in this year's budget for a psychiatric residential center. And the General Assembly approved $3.5 million for that purpose.
Aucoin said the department was putting out a bid proposal for mental health services for girls 8 to 16 years old. But the program is being partially funded with federal money and therefore needs approval from the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services first, Aucoin said.
Oversight committee Chairman Sen. Louis P. DePalma voiced frustration after the hearing with the department's slow response to the "critical" issue - as well as with the former administration of Gov. Gina Raimondo.
"It hasn't been a priority, which means lack of urgency. If the house is on fire, you have to put the fire out."
Email Tom Mooney at: email@example.com
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