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Child Advocate Handbook

Due to a grant from the Rhode Island Foundation, the Office of the Child Advocate was able to develop and print a handbook on the child welfare system in Rhode Island, as a means to enhance advocacy for children by providing an easy reference to the child welfare system and the Rhode Island Family Court. It is the hope of the Child Advocate that the said handbook:
Provide an educational tool for professional working in and cooperating with the child welfare system; Improve the level of awareness and expertise among professionals and service providers; Foster better cooperation and communication among the many public and private agencies and departments to achieve sufficient and timely delivery of high-quality services to children and their families; and Inform both the general public and families involved in the system about the operations of DCYF and the Family Court.

Included on this site are excerpts from The Rhode Island Office of the Child Advocate Handbook. They are meant to suggest the entire format of the manual. An appendix of local and national resources available has been included. To obtain a complete copy of the Handbook, contact the Office of the Child Advocate via phone at (401) 222-6650 or fax at (401) 222-6652.


The National Problem:

  • More than one million children were victims of abuse and neglect during the year 1994 – a 27 percent increase since 1990.
  • Perpetrators were almost always family members: nearly 80 percent were parents and 10 percent were other relatives of the victim.

The National System:

  • More than 500,000 children live in some type of foster care arrangement.
    Thirty percent of children in foster care have severe emotional, behavioral or developmental problems.
  • Of every 1,000 children age 0-18 in the country’s population, 6.3 percent are in foster care, with an average stay of nearly 3 years; more than 15, 000 foster children leave the system every year without permanent families; and 40 percent of the nation’s homeless are former foster children.

The Rhode Island Problem:

  • There were 2,541 indicated cases of child abuse and neglect, a rate of 9.1 per 1,000 children in the past three years.
  • Seven communities – Central Falls, Newport, Pawtucket, Providence, Westerly, West Warwick and Woonsocket - accounted for nearly two-thirds of the indicated cases .


National Efforts:

  • The Social Security Act of 1935: stimulate child welfare services and direct Federal dollars to families Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) of 1974: supports the state'’ power to assume a quasi-parental role under the doctrine of parents patriae. "This doctrine has gradually evolved into the principle that the community, in addition to the parents, has a strong interest in the care and nurturing of children, who represent the community… ." (A Coordinated Response to Child Abuse and Neglect," NCCAN).
  • Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980: achieve a better balance between family autonomy and the rights of children to be protected from harm.
  • Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA): address problems related to "foster care drift" and the lack of permanent families for thousands of foster children in this country.


DCYF, Family Court and OCA:

The Department of Children, Youth and Families: principal agency within the executive branch of State government established for the general purpose of "mobilize[ing] the human, physical and financial resources available to plan, develop, and evaluate a comprehensive and integrated statewide program of services designed to ensure the opportunity for children to reach their full potential. The services include prevention, early intervention, outreach, placement, care and treatment, and after-care programs… "
(See: R.I.G.L 42-72-1 et seq.).

Family Court: a court of limited jurisdiction, has exclusive original jurisdiction to hear matters concerning dependent, neglected, abused, wayward and delinquent children (persons under the age of 18) in the State. In addition, matters regarding adoption of children, paternity and child support determinations, and child marriages are brought the Family Court (R.I.G.L.14-1-5).

The Child Advocate’s Office: established by statue to protect the civil, legal and special rights of all children involved with DCYF. The chief purpose of the OCA is to monitor DCYF and its operations. Its mission is to ensure that DCYF offers the children adequate protection and quality services, while according the children respect for their individual rights and dignity.

Child Protection System:


  • "to protect children whose health and welfare may be adversely affected through injury and neglect;to strengthen the family and to make the home safe for children by enhancing the parental capacity for good child care;
  • to provide a temporary or permanent nurturing and safe environment for children when necessary;
  • and for these purposes to require the mandatory reporting of known or suspected child abuse and neglect, investigation of those reports by a social agency, and provision of services, where needed, to the child and family" (R.I.G.L 40-11-1)

The Key Players:

  • Child Protective Investigator (DCYF): conduct a safety assessment within the child’s environment and to determine whether the reported allegations are ‘indicated’ or ‘unfounded.'
  • Social Case Worker (DCYF): serve as a catalyst, someone who actively and systematically help the family to identify or create and use necessary resources.
  • Social Case Worker Supervisor (DCYF): assures that children are protected from harm and families receive competent and timely services.
  • Attorney for the State (DCYF): employed by the state to represent the agency’s position in individual cases and on general policy.
  • Guardian ad litem for the child and Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA): assure that the needs and interests of a child in a judicial proceeding are fully protected; conduct an independent investigation into the background and facts of the case, determine the child’s educational, psychological, and other treatment needs, and help assure that the legal intervention leads to appropriate treatment and action.
  • Child Advocate, Assistant Child Advocate, Social Worker and Educational Advocate (OCA):
    scrutinizes the manner in which the State protects and cares for children by examining pertinent issues system-wide; takes any necessary action to protect and guarantee the legal, civil and special rights of children in DCYF’s care.
  • Attorney for the Parent(s): assures that the parent’s statutory and constitutional rights are fully protected in any judicial proceeding and that the parent understands the judicial process and its potential impact.


Child Maltreatment Defined:

  • Physical Abuse: infliction of physical injury by punching, beating, kicking, biting, burning or otherwise harming a child.
  • Neglect: failure to provide for the child’s basic needs
    • Physical Neglect: refusal of or delay in seeking health care, abandonment, expulsion from home or not allowing a runaway to return home, and inadequate supervision, provision of food, clothing, or personal hygiene care.
    • Educational Neglect: permitted chronic truancy, failure to enroll a child of mandatory school age (6-years-old), other truancy (e.g., requiring a child to care for siblings instead of attending school), and inattention to special educational needs.
    • Emotional neglect: chronic or extreme spouse abuse in the child’s presence, permitted drug or alcohol use by the child, and refusal of or failure to provide needed psychological attention or care.
  • Sexual Abuse: contact with a child when the child is being used for sexual stimulation by the other person.
  • Mental Injury (Emotional or Psychological Abuse): acts or omissions by the parents or other person responsible for the child’s care that have cause, or could cause, serious behavioral, cognitive, emotional, or mental disorders. Emotional abuse include the following behaviors – isolating, denying emotional responsiveness, terrorizing, rejecting, degrading, corrupting, exploiting.

Rhode Island Definitions

  • Abuse: creates or allows to be created a substantial risk of injury, excessive corporal punishment or sexual abuse.
  • Neglect: failure to provide a minimum degree of care or proper supervision, including adequate food, clothing, shelter or medical care, though financially capable (R.I.G.L. 40-11-2)
  • Dependency: a circumstance in which a child is at risk of harm and requires the protection and assistance of the Family Court because the parent is unable to care for him/her through no fault of the parent, but rather due to the child's special medical, educational, or social service needs, or the death or illness of the parent (R.I.G.L. 14-1-3).

Voluntary Removal

  • When a child has an emotional, behavioral, mental, physical or developmental disability, the parent may request that DCYF place the child out of the home to access needed services.
  • Parental rights maintained include: the right to reasonable visitation; the right to be consulted on decisions regarding the child's care and placement; the right to revoke the agreement upon a 10-day written notice to DCYF; and the right to a case plan.

Reunification Efforts

The Trial

Once a report of child maltreatment leads to the filing of a juvenile petition in the Family Court, the business of protecting children is shared by DCYF, the judiciary and the professionals appointed to represent the various parties. The reunification process begins as soon as the child is removed from the home.

  • The focus of the proceedings is not the abuser, but whether the child is abused or neglected.
  • The trial stage of the proceedings represents a search for truth.

The Case Plan

Whenever children are committed to the custody of the State, the DCYF family service caseworker develops a case plan that includes information about specific tasks, timeframes and goals.

  • Consistent and clear case planning aims to avoid "foster care drift" - the prolonged or indefinite placement of children in a variety of out-of-home settings, thereby depriving children of their right to a stable, consistent home. The goal of the case plan is always "reunification".
  • The purpose of the case plan is to serve as a blueprint for the travel of the case so that the parties are fully aware of their respective rights, duties and obligations.

Placement Options

  • Foster Care: offered in kinship (relative) homes, in homes that are certified for the care of a specific child, and in licensed foster homes.
  • Kinship Foster Care: placing children with family members that may include grandparents, aunts,uncles, siblings, first and second cousins, and others.
  • Group Care: Shelters housing children for up to 90 days are frequently the points of entry into the placement system for adolescents. Interim treatment programs exist for younger children first entering the system and who require assessment and treatment toward a goal of either reunification or the identification of an appropriate alternative placement. Group homes serve both males and females in separate facilities and are generally intended to be long-term placements for adolescents. These are community-based facilities, in residential areas, where children attend public school,, and ideally, participate in the community's social and recreational programs.

The Review

Once a child has been committed to the care, custody and control of DCYF and a case plan prepared, the Court will conduct periodic reviews of the case. Whenever necessary, parties may also file motions to bring the case to the Court on a date not previously scheduled.

  • Motions: provide parties with an almost immediate opportunity to bring the case to the Judge to address specific issues - placement changes and other placement-related issues, visitation issues, and treatment issues.

Case Resolution

Children have a fundamental interest in the continuity and permanence of family relationships. Children dependent on the State for their care have the right to expect that an appropriate plan for achieving permanency will be developed and implemented in a timely fashion.

  • Permanency: achieved when the child's situation provides continuity, consistency and connection.

Permanency Option

  • Reunification: When reasonable attempt to resolve issues that caused the family disruption are successful, then permanency through reunification can be achieved.
  • Adoption: A child is not "legally free" for adoption until the rights of both parents have been finally terminated.
  • Voluntary Consent to TPR: Biological parents may decide to relinquish legal rights to their children. The parent no longer has a right to consent to the adoption of a child or to have contact with a child.
  • Direct-Consent Adoption: provides birth parents with a mechanism to help facilitate permanency for their child when reunification is not possible; provides assurances to the birth parents that their child will continue to be safe and loved as he/she gets older.
  • Involuntary TPR: Under certain circumstances, the State is not required to make "reasonable efforts" to either prevent removal of the child from the parent or to reunify families. These circumstances involve sever child maltreatment and/or a particular type of family history of involvement with DCYF.
  • Adoption by Current Foster Parent(s): State law provides extra protection to children who have been placed in one foster home for a lengthy period of time. The law's rationale is that it may be harmful to not recognize the special bond established between children and caregivers over time.
  • Adoption Outside the Current Placement: The State may not postpone or deny adoption while looking for an in-state placement when a suitable out-of-state adoption is possible. Based on provisions of the Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children (ICPC) Rhode Island may enlist the cooperation and services of sister states to investigate and approve potential out-of-state adoptions for difficult-to-place Rhode Island children.
  • Long-Term Foster Care (LTFC): generally used in cases where the child has become integrated into his/her foster home and cannot be adopted for a particular reason.
  • Guardianship: takes over the parental role, with special responsibility to assure that the child receives proper care, protection and education (R.I.G.L. 40-11-12, 40-11-12.1 and 40-11-12.3). Federal law allows for "standby guardianship" when parents are chronically or terminally ill. With a "standby guardianship," the parent does not have to relinquish authority but shares it with a designated person.
  • Independence: "Aging out of the System": All children placed with DCYF should receive help in developing life skills. The goal of the Independent Living Initiative of 1986 (P.L. 99-272) is to prepare young people in State care for "emancipation" or "independent living." Any good plan will help children to establish a plan for "interdependent" living. "Human beings are interdependent, able to relate to and function with others using community influence and resources, and being accessible to individuals and groups" (The Child Welfare Challenge, 344, citing Maluccio et al, 1990).
  • Open Adoptions: formal agreement among the parties, including the adoptive parents, who have been identified and approved at the time of the TPR proceedings when there is an opportunity for some sort of relationship between the adoptive and birth families.


We now view children as members of families and as citizens who enjoy certain basic constitutional rights. One of the goals of the landmark 1980 Federal law, Public Law 96-272, was to provide for more accountability and evaluation at the state level. The 1997 amendment to that law, called the Adoption and Safe Families Act, affirms the need to focus on assessment and evaluation of state child welfare operations in order to identify both the ills and successes within the system.