R.C. was an emotionally disturbed child removed from the family home due to allegations of abuse and neglect. Thought he had never been diagnosed as psychotic or seriously mentally ill, he was given large doses of psychoactive medications while in the state's custody.
Concerned about the inappropriate treatment given to R.C. and other children in foster care, lawyers for the Center, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health and Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program (ADAP) filed a class action lawsuit in 1988 against the Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR).
The lawyers claimed that child welfare authorities failed to provide appropriate treatment and services to R.C., causing his condition to deteriorate. Like hundreds of other foster children, R.C. was bounced around from one placement to another instead of being provided a stable environment.
First, DHR placed R.C. in a psychiatric hospital for a few weeks. Next, they transferred him to the psychiatric unit of a second hospital for six months. He left the psychiatric unit for a few days then returned for another six-month stay. His next stop was a home for children who are psychotic or suffer serious behavioral disorders.
In 1991, the District Court issued a consent decree in R.C. v. Fuller that requires dramatic changes in the way child welfare authorities provide for children with special mental health needs and their families.
The new standards emphasize working with families in crisis in order to:
- Solve problems instead of simply removing children from the home;
- Investigating allegations of abuse and neglect faster;
- Providing appropriate and stable placements for children removed as a last resort;
- Reducing caseloads for social workers and investigators;
- Devoting more resources to the DHR county agencies; and
- Providing appropriate mental health services for children with special needs.
DHR remains under the Court's supervision as lawyers work to bring 67 county agencies into compliance with the new standards.
James Tucker, Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, Ira Burnim, The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law