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A recent class-action suit against the Administration for Children’s Services reveals the legal future of child welfare: Most, if not all, such lawsuits will likely be decided by one man, U.S. District Judge Robert J. Ward. His opinions will therefore have a significant impact on the ongoing reform of the agency.

In late January, People United for Children filed a $12.25 million federal class-action lawsuit against ACS, charging that the child welfare agency discriminates against minority parents by inappropriately removing their children and failing to either provide preventive services or inform parents of their rights.

The suit, initially slated for U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, was shifted to Judge Ward’s court in mid-February. The reasoning: Ward heard the landmark Marisol v. Giuliani child welfare suit, which sought to have ACS put into receivership for failing to protect children from abuse and neglect. Given the way that jurisdiction guidelines operate, judges that become expert in one field usually hear related cases.

Childrens’ Rights Inc. director Marcia Robinson Lowry, who brought Marisol v. Giuliani, said that due to the sweeping nature of the Marisol settlement, other class-action suits against ACS will likely be referred to Judge Ward. “Marisol was very broad in its scope,” she explained, “and the settlement does purport to deal with all aspects of ACS operations.”

But the two cases have significant differences, pointed out People United for Children attorney Joan Gibbs. “Marisol was about children’s rights,” she said. “This suit is about parents’ rights. We want to make ACS follow the law as it is and inform parents of their rights and to not remove children when there is no imminent risk.”

Gibbs feared that because the decision was made to shift the case to Ward, her lawsuit might get lumped together with Marisol, settled in January. “The city is probably going to move to dismiss because they think these issues have already been addressed under Marisol,” she said. “But they haven’t.”

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