Did Massachusetts Fail Alleged Murderer Donald Rudolph?
BOUNCING AROUND TO MULTIPLE foster homes — as Rudolph did — has a damaging effect. That 2008 Boston Foundation survey of 812 youths who turned 18 while in DCF care found that 39 percent reported having had 10 or more placements over the course of their lives. Adults who used to be in foster care say that constantly moving when they were younger caused a deep-seated feeling of instability that has followed them their entire lives (although Rudolph passed through only two foster homes, between his mother’s and father’s places, and wherever else he could find to sleep, he clearly led a transient lifestyle).
The sad truth is that part of the problem with aging out — part of the reason so many 18-year-old foster kids are so poorly adjusted — is that too many children are treated badly even while they are in the state’s care. Massachusetts has one of the nation’s highest rates of children being abused or neglected while in foster care, according to government data. DCF itself reported in 2009 that .84 percent of foster children suffered abuse or neglect. While that might sound low, it doesn’t meet federal standards and actually places Massachusetts as the seventh-worst state in the country.
State officials attribute our higher rate to aggressive reporting. In other words, problems that some states might just ignore, Massachusetts deals with actively. “That’s why on paper it looks like we’ve got 22 times more abuse and neglect than Pennsylvania,” says the DCF’s McClain.
But one national advocacy group doesn’t buy it. After researching troubling cases in the state over a number of years, the New York–based group Children’s Rights is suing Massachusetts for violating the constitutional rights of children in its care. The class-action suit, expected to be heard in U.S. District Court in Springfield early next year, was filed on behalf of six children the organization says have been “badly harmed” by abuse, neglect, and numerous placements while in the state’s foster care system. Connor B. v. Patrick also accuses the state of not adequately preparing adolescents in foster care for living independently as adults, essentially targeting the aging-out issue. The state has already failed in several attempts to have the case dismissed or delayed.
“The commonwealth’s taxpayers are paying for a system that, rather than protecting children, is further contributing to damage that children have gotten already in a home environment,” says Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director at Children’s Rights, which has served as general counsel in lawsuits against child welfare agencies in at least a dozen other states. “It’s not a good system and has not been a good system for a long time. The state’s known about it but is not taking any action.”
McClain, of course, challenges those accusations. He says Children’s Rights has been “in the business” of suing child welfare systems for more than 20 years. “[I]t’s not difficult to go in and find some situations that didn’t go too well and paint them as representative of the entire system,” McClain says, adding that Massachusetts is in “good company,” being sued alongside states like Connecticut, Oklahoma, Texas, and Michigan.