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Lawsuit over removing children from homes settled (Released: 9/2/98)

by Renu Aldrich, Office of University Communications.

Storrs , Conn. -- A lawsuit challenging the state's procedure for removing children from parents suspected of abuse or neglect was settled on Tuesday, according to lead attorney Paul Chill, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law.

The lawsuit, brought by the Law School's Civil Rights Clinic, led the General Assembly to pass legislation effective Oct. 1 that addresses some of the most pressing problems raised by the lawsuit. The parties in the lawsuit agreed to a settlement, which was approved by a superior court judge on Tuesday.

The plaintiff, known only as Pamela B., filed suit in December 1995 after the state Department of Children and Families removed her 19-month old son Johnathan because of suspected medical neglect. When Pamela B. appeared in court ten days later to request Johnathan's return, Judge Douglas Lavine told her that because of overcrowded dockets he could not give her a hearing until six months later. Pamela B. then filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all parents in Connecticut, alleging that chronic delays in the juvenile courts violate parents' and children's constitutional rights. State officials moved to have the suit thrown out, arguing that courts lack power to hear a challenge to delays in the court system itself. In a landmark decision issued last March, the state Supreme Court rejected those arguments and ordered a trial in the case. Justice Joette Katz, writing for the majority, held that Connecticut's courts have the power and obligation to order a remedy when "a deluge of cases" overwhelms "inadequate" court resources and causes "significant interference" with parents' and children's "constitutional rights to family integrity."

Spurred by the decision, the General Assembly last May passed a law designed to speed temporary custody hearings in juvenile court cases. The law guarantees parents and children the right to a hearing within 24 days of a child's removal from the home. The law requires that the hearing proceed on consecutive days unless "compelling circumstances" exist or the parent requests a delay. The law also mandates that court papers served on parents clearly inform them of their right to court-appointed counsel, and that parents be advised to contact the court immediately to request counsel.

Chill says the new law "goes a long way" toward solving the problem that led Pamela B. to file her lawsuit. Although he remains concerned that it may take up to three-and-a-half weeks before a hearing even begins, "at least the hearing won't drag on for months and months while the child languishes in foster care" as commonly used to occur, he says.

"Everyone agrees that it's very harmful to a child to take him away from his parents and keep him away any longer than is absolutely necessary," he says. Since the tragic death of Baby Emily Hernandez in 1995, DCF has been removing "unprecedented" numbers of children from their homes, often without sufficient basis.

The new law, Chill says, will help ensure that emergency removal will be reserved for the most dire cases and will be quickly reviewed by the courts.

Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the defendants -- chief court administrator Aaron Ment and former DCF commissioner Linda D=Amario Rossi -- will pay about $15,000 to help fund the work of the Civil Rights Clinic. In addition, they must also provide training to lawyers who represent parents and children in juvenile court cases. In return, the plaintiff agreed to have her case dismissed.

The settlement comes too late to help Pamela B. herself, who relinquished her parental rights to Johnathan and another child ten months ago as part of an agreement with DCF that allowed her to maintain a relationship with a third child, Chill says. But he says Pamela B brought the lawsuit with the knowledge that she was unlikely to benefit directly from it.

"She wanted to make sure that no one else would have to go through what she did," Chill says.