March 2011 Volunteer Feature: Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP and The Legal Aid Society Obtain Class Action Settlement that Mandates Reform of New York City Foster Care Agency Psychiatric Hospitalization Practices
We are pleased to announce that a class action settlement has been reached in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York prohibiting the City of New York from continuing practices that cause children in its care to languish in psychiatric hospitals longer than medically necessary. The Legal Aid Society and the law firm of Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP filed the underlying lawsuit in May 2010 on behalf of a class of children in foster care, alleging that the City had systematically violated laws requiring children to be placed in the least restrictive and most homelike environments possible.
The defendants in the case, the New York City Administration for Children's Services ("ACS") and its various agencies, are responsible for over 14,000 children in foster care. The class action suit alleged that ACS left children with behavioral and disciplinary issues to languish in psychiatric hospitals when they no longer required hospitalization and was failing to provide children with placements in less restrictive settings as required by law when hospital staff determined that children were ready for discharge. This unlawful treatment, the suit claimed, was depriving plaintiffs of liberty and causing irreparable emotional harm.
The settlement, approved on Friday, March 11 by Judge Brian M. Cogan of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, provides relief to the entire class that will help ensure children in foster care in New York City are not subjected to confinement in acute care psychiatric hospitals for any longer than is medically necessary. The settlement requires the City to comply with applicable federal and state laws and provides substantial reforms. A recently created unit within ACS will monitor children in foster care placed in psychiatric hospitals in order to find them less restrictive placements when ready for discharge. ACS must also train staff on a newly-implemented mandatory policy governing psychiatric hospitalization and discharge planning, as well as evaluate and enforce its agencies' compliance with the policy.
The court will retain jurisdiction over the case for a five-year period for enforcement. The settlement requires ACS to produce regular, detailed reports on its compliance.
Tamara Steckler, Attorney-in-Charge of the Juvenile Rights Practice at the Legal Aid Society, stated, "The mandated notification of a child's attorney as soon as a child is placed in a psychiatric hospital is one of the most significant aspects of the settlement. Giving the child's attorney prompt notice is the best, and sometimes only, way to prevent children from getting lost in the system and languishing in such institutions longer than is medically necessary." Kimberly Forte, a staff attorney in the Juvenile Rights Law Reform Unit, and Tami Steckler are handling the case for The Legal Aid Society.
Patterson Belknap partner Lisa E. Cleary remarked, "With this settlement, children in foster care will now be provided with additional safety nets to ensure that the City lives up to its obligation to provide them with appropriate care and services. We applaud the Administration for Children's Services for its willingness to address these very serious concerns in a productive manner. With regular, appropriate training and education of ACS staff and foster care agencies, and appropriate oversight by the Mental Health Coordination Unit that ACS has given significant responsibility under the Consent Decree, we expect the number and duration of psychiatric hospitalizations of children in foster care to diminish dramatically. We will be monitoring the situation closely to ensure that ACS complies with all of the terms of the Consent Decree."
Handling the case for Patterson Belknap are Leonard Braman, Jordan Engelhardt, William Schmedlin, and Brian Sweet, who are associates and Kim Lakeman, a legal assistant.