Class Action Lawsuit Filed for N. Florida Foster Children

April 4, 2006

Legal action taken against  the Florida Department of Children and Family Services
and private contractor Big Bend Community Based Care.

(Tallahassee, FL – April 4, 2006) – A class action lawsuit filed in Florida state court today charges the Department of Children and Family Services (“DCF”) and a private contract foster care agency, Big Bend Community Based Care, Inc., with failing to find appropriate and licensed foster placements for abused and neglected children.  Specifically, DCF and Big Bend are accused of forcing foster children to sleep night after night in a conference room in a DCF building at 3019 Jackson Bluff Road in Tallahassee.

Florida and national attorneys filed the case, Susan C. v. Florida Department of Children & Family Services on behalf of foster children who have suffered physical harm and psychological trauma from being sent to live and sleep in a conference room with children of all ages, and without beds, bedding, adequate food, sanitary facilities, supervision, or medical care.

“If parents treated their children this way, the state would remove the kids.  DCF and its private contractors should not be allowed to abuse vulnerable children with such degrading treatment,” said Carole Shauffer, Executive Director of the Youth Law Center, and one of the attorneys for the children. “It is unconscionable that children can end up spending weeks living in the building and sleeping in office chairs or on top of conference tables.”

The lawsuit charges that the State uses the Jackson Bluff Road office building by day for various DCF programs and to administer food stamps, but at night it houses children for whom Big Bend has not found a foster care placement.  There are no individual sleeping rooms, dining areas or approved areas for food preparation.  There are no recreation areas in the office, nor are there any provisions for privacy in sleeping, dressing or personal grooming.

“We are asking the court for to order the State and Big Bend to no longer send foster children to live in the conference room,” said Paolo Annino, Co-Director of the Children’s Advocacy Clinic at Florida State University College of Law.  “Florida state law requires that all placements for children in foster care be licensed by DCF to meet certain basic health and safety standards.  Every time a child is sent to sleep in the conference room, DCF and Big Bend are breaking the law and putting the lives of at-risk children in considerable jeopardy.  This illegal practice needs to end immediately.”

“Would you want your child to live in your conference room for two weeks, or for that matter, even one night?” asked Corene Kendrick, Staff Attorney at the Youth Law Center.  “DCF and Big Bend forcing Tallahassee foster children to live day after day in a conference room when they have suffered so much in their young lives and have such complex needs is not just unconstitutional but also morally indefensible.”

The lawsuit alleges the following facts:

• The children who are forced to sleep at the conference room usually arrive at the end of the workday around 5 p.m.  They stay in the facility until 8 a.m., when the office is needed for business.  As there is only an office bathroom at the building, in the mornings before school, the children are transported to take showers at a nearby motel or shelter.

• While they are sent to live in the conference room, the children, of all ages and both sexes, sleep together.  There is one air mattress and the most aggressive child usually gets it.  The others sleep on top of conference tables or sitting up in chairs.  The children often sleep using little more than their clothing or other belongings as a sheet or as pillows.

• DCF hires a “babysitter” from a local temporary agency to supervise children overnight; on some occasions a caseworker will stay overnight.  There may be a different babysitter every night.  The babysitters have minimal training in dealing with high-needs children.

• The children lack adequate medical care when they are in the conference room because there are no provisions for dealing with medical emergencies.  Children with chronic illnesses are sometimes deprived of needed medication.  At least one child suffered an asthma attack while living in the conference room, and there was no medicine for him.  Another child had to be hospitalized after attempting suicide while living in the conference room.

• There is no private place for the children to study or do homework.  The children stay awake as late as they wish at night, and the television often is left on for the entire night.

The plaintiffs, who are suing the state in pseudonym, include:

• Susan C., 15, has lived in the conference room on several occasions.  Her longest stay lasted almost two weeks and her most recent stay was for ten days.  When Susan has stayed in the conference room, there were up to ten children living there with her.  Susan has been diagnosed with multiple psychiatric disorders.  Susan also is asthmatic.

• Cindy B., 13, lived in the conference room for approximately one week.  She is developmentally disabled, has an IQ of 51, and is diagnosed with a number of psychiatric disorders.  She also suffers enuresis and encopresis (involuntarily and repeatedly wetting and soiling herself).  Due to her medical condition, Cindy has significant hygiene needs that are not easily met, especially by the limited bathroom facilities at the conference room.

Representing the children are attorneys Carole Shauffer, Corene Kendrick, and Jennifer Troia at the Youth Law Center, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco that advocates for the rights of children in foster care and juvenile justice systems; Paolo Annino of Tallahassee; and Michael Dale of Ft. Lauderdale.

A copy of the complaint filed in the lawsuit is available on the Youth Law Center website.