Angela R. Lawsuit Shines Spotlight on Arkansas Child Welfare System
When attorneys for children in Arkansas realized their state’s child welfare system was woefully broken, they brought in NCYL to help. NCYL and local legal services organizations launched a year-long investigation that led to the filing of a class action lawsuit. The lawsuit, Angela R. v. Clinton, lasted ten years and chronicled the many shortcomings of a floundering child welfare system.
In July 1991, after attempts at negotiating with state officials stalled, ten plaintiff children filed suit in federal district court against the Governor of Arkansas and the director of the Arkansas Department of Human Services (“DHS”). Angela R., the lead plaintiff, was sixteen years old when she filed suit. During her first four years in DHS’s custody, she was shuttled between forty different placements, many with foster parents who were unable to care for her epilepsy and mental health needs. Another plaintiff, thirteen-year-old Jesse T., had no case plan after several months in foster care; the case plan DHS finally developed called for reunification with his father, who had been convicted of sexually molesting Jesse. Plaintiff Lisa S., six years old, had been in DHS custody for over two years with no clear plan for a permanent home. Her initial case plan called for reunification with her mother but included no visitation schedule for over seven months.
The lawsuit highlighted a range of system-wide problems, including a failure to investigate reports of child abuse or neglect; failure to conduct case planning; failure to make reasonable efforts to prevent children’s placement in foster care in the first place; and the hiring of inexperienced caseworkers with unreasonably high caseloads and little to no training or supervision.
In October 1991, the parties stipulated to a class definition, and the court certified the case as a class action encompassing all Arkansas children in foster care or reported as abused or neglected since July 1, 1988. The parties began to talk settlement, and in February 1992 they sought the court’s approval of a negotiated settlement agreement that incorporated a detailed plan entitled the “Arkansas Child Welfare Reform Document.” The same day the parties filed the settlement with the court, the Governor signed a bill adopting the document into state law.
The settlement agreement addressed each of the substantive areas covered by the Angela R. lawsuit. It called for: substantial increases in the payment rates for foster homes; more therapeutic foster homes to serve children with special needs; initial health screenings of all children within 72 hours of coming into custody; maximum caseload standards for caseworkers; and investigations of all child abuse/neglect reports within 24-72 hours, among other provisions.
On March 19, 1992, the district court preliminarily approved the settlement. Final approval of the settlement was significantly delayed when the defendants filed a motion arguing that the district court should narrow the Angela R. class based on a recent Supreme Court decision. When the district court denied their request and ordered the settlement be entered as a consent decree, the defendants appealed. In a decision issued July 13, 1993, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals quickly disposed of the defendants’ substantive challenge, but it nevertheless vacated the consent decree out of concern that the enforcement mechanism was ambiguous.
With the defendants unwilling to resolve the ambiguity in the original settlement, the parties began preparing for trial. Three weeks before the trial date, the defendants came back to the negotiation table. The subsequent settlement the parties crafted was substantively similar to the original one but did not specify the implementation steps and deadlines the State would need to meet before the end of the agreement’s five-year term. The duty to develop a yearly implementation plan fell to the State, with guidance from a five-member committee that the parties would jointly choose. The Center for the Study of Social Policy would conduct an annual, independent evaluation of the State’s progress in meeting the outcome measures. The court approved the settlement on October 14, 1994, just days before the trial was set to begin.
For the first four years of the implementation period, the independent auditor found that Arkansas had not only failed to meet the compliance targets but had even grown worse in some areas. In February 1999, the Arkansas Legislature invited NCYL to testify as to the defendants’ progress. In August 1999, as the five-year benchmark approached, the defendants agreed to ask the court to extend the settlement agreement by two more years. The settlement agreement finally expired, and court oversight ended, in December 2001.
Prior to Angela R., Arkansas’s child welfare system had been failing children and families for years. The lawsuit brought new resources and attention to the way children received care. The year after the suit was filed, the State agreed to invest $65 million in reforming the system. Under the settlement, and through a partnership with the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences, the agency made major strides in its provision of medical care to foster children. Response times to child abuse reports also greatly improved.
The plaintiff children were represented by NCYL, attorney Merry Alice Hesselbein, Central Arkansas Legal Services, Ozark Legal Services, and the law firms of Lisle Rutledge P.A. and Mitchell, Blackstock, Barnes, Wagoner & Ives.