By S.I. Rosenbaum
PROVIDENCE – Attorney Timothy Conlon is waging a war. For 17 years, Conlon has been taking on Rhode Island’s Department of Children, Youth and Families, representing former DCYF charges in more than 40 lawsuits.
His clients range from 12-year-olds still in the system to adults seeking restitution for the shambles they say their childhoods became under DCYF’s care.
Often, Conlon will take cases no other lawyer wants to touch. ”These cases,” Conlon said, ”are like grenades.”
Throughout his career, Conlon, 44, has made a name for himself as a grenade launcher.
He has been after DCYF since 1982, when as an assistant public defender he shut down one of their facilities. He tells horror stories about children sleeping in offices, being strip-searched in locked facilities, handcuffed to furniture, and sexually abused.
DCYF officials say their agency is doing the best it can with damaged children and limited resources.
Director Jay G. Lindgren Jr., 56, calls DCYF the ”closest-watched system I’ve ever seen.”
Of Conlon he says: ”He’s an advocate, and advocates need to be extreme sometimes. Sometimes you need to exaggerate a point to make it.”
Conlon’s passion doesn’t always make his work easy for him, however. Two weeks ago, he brought a case to trial at Rhode Island Superior Court. Conlon’s client, Shawn Gill, 28, sued DCYF for neglect, saying he was raped by staff members at the St. Aloysius orphanage between 1979 and 1982.
To Conlon, Gill is a product of a deeply flawed system. To the jury, Gill was a manipulative convict out to make a buck. The jury found against him in just three hours on July 20.
Gill’s case came down to a matter of trust. Gill has been out of prison for years, is off drugs, and holds two jobs. But during the trial, he admitted that his past includes auto theft, drug abuse, prostitution, and perjury. In 1990, Gill said, he recanted testimony against his allegedly sexually abusive stepfather in return for $1,000, which he spent on cocaine. In the end, the jury simply didn’t believe him.
”Conlon had a sellable story,” said William Poore, who represented the former orphanage in the trial.
”Social reform, doing good for kids – it tugs at the heartstrings. But his client had a serious, serious credibility problem.”
Conlon says that even cases like Gill’s – cases that seem unwinnable – are worth the fight.
”Almost all wards of the state have horrific backgrounds. Almost all wards of the state have made incredibly stupid choices,” he said. ”If all you did was take the cases you knew you could win, what would that make you?”
Successful, some might answer. By his own admission Conlon has lost tremendous amounts of money representing former DCYF wards. Yet he says he regrets nothing. Could his clients be manipulating him?
”So be it. I’ll accept that,” he replied. ”Better 100 guilty persons go free than one innocent man go to jail. Should my clients be denied representation because I’m afraid I’ll be suckered by one of these kids?”
Bearded and bespectacled, Conlon keeps a copy of Chinese general Sun Tzu’s ”The Art of War” on his desk. He has been known to go beyond the call of duty for his clients, finding therapists for them, tracking down runaways, even getting a court order so that one young client could spend Thanksgiving with Conlon and his family. He sends holiday cards to clients years after their cases are over.
Both his enemies and his friends agree: Conlon believes in his work and his clients.
”Tim will go in there and do whatever it takes to hold whoever is accountable, accountable,” said Nicholas Colangelo, 49, a lawyer who has also tangled with DCYF.
”I think his reputation – and I mean this as a compliment – is as a very zealous advocate for men and women who are victims of abuse,” said James Murphy, a lawyer who will oppose Conlon in upcoming cases.
In some of Conlon’s cases, he sues for injunctive relief, directly forcing DCYF’s facilities to change their practices. But more often he sues for damages.
He says that the money talks, that it forces DCYF to pay attention to its wards. Some of his colleagues, however, question whether a litigation lawyer can effectively change a system.
”To sue someone for money damages in order to change an institution perverts the legal system,” said Murphy. ”Conlon believes in his cases with every fiber of his being. Don Quixote believed in his cause with every fiber of his being as well.”
Conlon’s cases can also have serious repercussions for the accused. In Gill’s case, one of the DCYF workers accused of abuse came forward voluntarily to clear his name.
”My personal life has been sheer hell with that stigma over my head,” Gene Wigginton told the court, according to the Providence Journal-Bulletin.
But Conlon says his sympathies stay with his clients.
”I don’t think Tim is blinded by the light,” said Colangelo. ”He doesn’t have a vendetta against DCYF. …There’s unfortunately a lot of horror stories people don’t want to hear.”
Conlon says the defeat in the Gill case has not discouraged him. He is preparing to bring six more cases against the former St. Aloysius orphanage.
”This wall is all St. Aloysius kids,” he said, pointing to a corner of his office where the shelves are packed floor to ceiling with hardback binders.
On July 20, while the victorious defense lawyers gathered for drinks, Conlon stalked around his office, burning off energy.
”Of course I’m disappointed,” he said. ”Seven years of effort have gone into this case.”
He said he is thrilled that during the trial Judge Thomas Needham ruled that the state was not immune to liability suits from its wards, and was obligated in a ”special duty” to them.
It’s a duty he will try to ensure the state upholds. He will keep on engaging DCYF, as long as he feels there’s cause.
”I’ve managed 20 years to survive and pay my bills chasing after the state department when the state department’s dropped the ball and the ball is a kid,” he said last week, as he sat at a conference table in his office. ”And I have to believe that the chase itself serves a purpose.”
This story ran on page C11 of the Boston Globe on 08/08/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company