Today, a New York judge threw out a controversial consent decree that would have ratcheted up state oversight of New York City’s foster care system.
In her straightforward opinion, New York District Judge Laura Swain denied a proposed settlement to a July 2015 class action lawsuit that had accused both New York State and City of allowing foster youth to languish in care.
“The opinion demonstrates that Judge Swain carefully considered the objections that New York City, along with parents’ and children’s advocates, raised in opposition to this proposal, and rejected a proposed settlement that would have unfairly burdened the foster care system without any clear or genuine benefit to children,” said Jill Krauss, the deputy commissioner for communications at New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, in an email.
One of Judge Swain’s key points in throwing out the settlement was the speed with which it had been reached.
Just 12 days after filing the lawsuit, the plaintiffs, led by a politically ambitious New York City public advocate in Letitia James, and Marcia Lowry, an attorney famous for wringing settlements from failing foster care systems, had come to settlement terms with the state.
“In a case of this complexity – with a 111-page Complaint asserting five causes of action under the Constitution and various statutes – resolution of all issues within 12 days (even if negotiation of the precise language of that resolution took longer) is difficult, if not impossible, to square with a conclusion that both parties fully appreciated the strengths and weaknesses of their litigation positions prior to reaching a settlement.”
Under these circumstances, Swain could not see that the settlement had reached the bar of “procedural fairness.”
In addition, Swain was persuaded by opinions submitted by the detractors of the settlement agreement. These included attorneys for both children and parents, and parents who had children in the foster care system, but who were not among the children suing the state and city.
The settlement would have created two new oversight positions within the state’s Office of Children and Family Services and New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services. The state promised to hire a “Monitor” to oversee it and New York City’s efforts improve the foster care system. Under the settlement, the city would have had to hire a “Research Expert” to do much of the same.
“Even if the Court were to conclude that the Monitor and Research Expert structure contemplated by the Consent Decree were adequate in theory, the wholesale lack of specificity within the Consent Decree as to the goals, objectives, and responsibilities of these two new officials raises significant questions as to the reasonableness of the Senate,” Swain wrote.
In addition, Swain was persuaded by the child welfare attorneys who argued that the seven-year duration of the settlement would inoculate the state from future suits.
“The failure of the Consent Decree to identify concrete issues, much less remedial measures and goals; the proponents’ failure to demonstrate that the parties had the requisite understanding of the facts and the strengths and weaknesses of the Plaintiffs’ claims of legal noncompliance by the State; and the extraordinary length of time for which the parties propose to bar further systemic litigation all render the Consent Decree patently unfair and unreasonable as a settlement of Plaintiffs’ claims against the State Defendants,” Swain wrote in her summary.