(NECN: Ally Donnelly) - The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is now on trial over a lawsuit claiming thousands of kids in foster care have been abused and neglected.
Twenty-four-year-old Lauren James says when she was a foster child in the care of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, she was shuffled through more than a dozen foster care placements. She says she often struggled to eat, was forced to scrub floors and do other housework and, she told NECN in November of last year, was sexually abused.
"Just horrible abuses and things have happened to me basically my entire childhood just robbed of me," she said in November. "It's terrible that children aren't accounted for more seriously and they can't speak up for themselves, so someone needs to do something now."
James was the first witness in a class-action lawsuit in federal court in Boston. The national advocacy group Children's Rights is suing the state of Massachusetts, alleging that thousands of children in state care have been abused and neglected and that social workers are juggling unmanageable caseloads to try and keep them safe.
"There's harm happening to children in the system -- it says in the complaint -- that's the basis of this lawsuit and we intend, at trial, to present evidence of, how much that's taking place -- why and why that's preventable," Children's Rights attorney Sara Bartosz said.
DCF commissioner Angelo McClain says in the last five years, the agency has made huge strides and the state chose to fight the lawsuit rather than settle to get its story out.
"Fewer kids in foster care, more staying at home, more children being placed with kin," McClain said.
The lawsuit comes on the heels of a report by the office of the Child Advocate, the state's independent watchdog group. According to the office, 40 children died in 2011 while involved with DCF, that's up from 36 in 2010 and 27 in 2009. The causes of death ranged from suicide to SIDS to car accidents.
"I don't think any of those deaths are related to us not following through, not keeping up with the family," he said. "Most of those deaths, the biggest number of those deaths are tragic accidents."
The lawsuit also alleges that Massachusetts foster kids are receiving psychotropic drugs at a concerning rate. An expert from Tufts University Medical Center will continue to testify for Children's Rights when the trial resumes Thursday.