BOSTON – Beginning at age 8, Lauren James bounced among at least 14 different foster homes, along the way being forced to scrub floors, clean up after dogs, miss meals and take up to five psychiatric mediations at a time.
Now 24, she was the opening witness Tuesday in a case aimed at putting the Massachusetts foster care system on trial.
The federal class-action lawsuit was filed in 2010 by Children's Rights, a New York-based child advocacy group that alleges that thousands of children in state foster care are being abused and neglected. The group claims the state Department of Children and Families has violated the constitutional rights of children by placing them in unstable and sometimes dangerous situations.
James described a turbulent childhood marked by the death of her father just before her 6th birthday and her mother's suicide when she was 12. She said she was shuttled between foster homes and sent to live with her mother between ages 8 and 11. Then, after her mother died, she hopped from foster home to foster home.
In most of the homes, she wasn't given enough to eat, and her weight dropped from 100 pounds to 73 pounds, she said.
In one home, she was forced by the foster parents to do a lot of housecleaning, including scrubbing floors on her hands and knees and cleaning up after six Chihuahuas, she said.
In another home, her foster parents made fun of her biological mother, James said. At one point, while she was grieving her mother's death, her foster parents told her that her father had "killed himself because he didn't want you," she said.
James said she often felt depressed but didn't express her feelings to her case workers very often. She said she was always told there were not enough foster homes.
"Really, it doesn't matter because they can't do anything about it," she said.
James said she was given lithium beginning at age 6.
"I remember them saying that because my father had bipolar, I was predisposed to it," she said.
After that, she said, she was put on various psychiatric medications, up to five at once. She said the medications made her feel "absolutely dreadful" and caused her to develop sleep problems. At one point, after she was given a new drug to take, she gained 45 pounds in three or four weeks, she said.
Under cross-examination from Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Collins, James acknowledged she first began taking psychiatric medication before she was ever placed in foster care. She acknowledged that both her biological mother and father had spent time in psychiatric hospitals. She also said a boyfriend her mother had after her father's death was sometimes violent and abusive.
She said she herself spent time in a psychiatric hospital as a child and was diagnosed over the years with various mental illnesses, including oppositional defiant disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and reactive-attachment disorder.
She acknowledged that the state had provided services intended to stabilize her family and allow her to remain at home with her mother, but that the services did not work, she said.
Collins asked James whether she blamed DCF, at least in part, for her mother's suicide.
"I don't blame anyone for my mother's death except my mother," she said.
She also said her mother had spent 4½ years of her childhood in foster care.
"With that cycle, I have inherited things that I despise and that the Department of Children and Families has not truly helped to fix, to help mend," she said.
The lawsuit seeks reforms on behalf of approximately 7,500 children in foster care in Massachusetts. The non-jury trial is being heard by U.S. District Judge William Young.
A lawyer for DCF told Young that the department has increased the number of children being safely cared for at home, with about 2,000 fewer children in foster care than just a few years ago.