The Rhode Island ACLU has asked the R.I. Supreme Court to review an appeal that raises fundamental questions about the legality of the procedures used by so-called “truancy courts” that have sprung up across the state in recent years. The ACLU brief filed in the case argues that essential due process safeguards are absent from the operation of these courts.

The case involves a Westerly mother and her middle school daughter, Jessica, who have been in Truancy Court for more than a year and have been unable to remove themselves from the Court’s jurisdiction despite the child’s improved attendance. Shortly after moving to the school district, the mother had asked school personnel to evaluate her child for special education eligibility and services. Instead of complying in a timely manner with its special education obligations under federal law, however, the school district initiated truancy proceedings. Last October, the truancy court magistrate in the case went so far as to enter an order finding the child dependent and ordering her placed in DCYF custody, despite the fact that no dependency petition had ever been filed or served on either the child or the parent, and that DCYF had never recommended that the child be found dependent. That order was later dropped.

In a “friend of the court” brief submitted in support of the family’s request that the Supreme Court give full review to the appeal, RI ACLU volunteer attorney Amy Tabor argues that the case “raises important civil liberties issues” involving such matters as a parent’s right to the care, custody and management of his or her children without undue interference by the State; the right to a meaningful appeal process in the event of erroneous or wrongful court orders; and the obligations of officials to comply with federal requirements governing students with disabilities.

Among the many points that are made in the ACLU’s brief:

  • The “truancy courts” that are now held in many public schools operate with neither stenographers nor any other verbatim recording of their proceedings. The brief calls this “a matter of great concern,” not only because attendance in these courts is so often mandated far beyond the period of problematic attendance, but also in light of  “the practice of ordering children to be placed in DCYF custody without an adequate record supporting such a severe deprivation of the parents’ fundamental rights to the care and custody of their children.”
  • There are no clear rules as to when a child’s truancy case should be closed, nor is there any clear procedure for a parent and child to follow to seek to have their case closed.  This is a matter of significance, states the brief, “because while the case is open, the child, and usually the parent as well, must attend truancy court sessions on a regular basis, sometimes as frequently as weekly. The parent may miss work or have difficulty caring for the child’s siblings due to the attendance requirements of truancy court.  In some cases, truancy court is held during the school day, and the child is pulled from academic classes to attend court. Once the child’s attendance has improved consistently, the family may still be required to continue attending court sessions, with no clear guidance on what they must do in order for the case to be closed.”

The brief notes that this was the case with Jessica; even after reports indicated good (and in some cases “perfect”) attendance, she was required to continue attending truancy court. She appealed to Family Court, but without any hearing at which witnesses could testify and evidence be produced, the trial judge denied the motion to dismiss the case and ordered Jessica to continue attending truancy court. As a result of that ruling, which is the subject of this appeal, “Jessica is once again required to attend the ‘Truancy Court’ in Westerly, where once again she must attend hearings for which there is no verbatim record, where she will again be at risk of being placed in DCYF custody with no record from which a meaningful appeal is possible, and where she and her parent have no guidance as to what they must do in order to have the case closed.”

RI ACLU volunteer attorney Tabor said today: “The ACLU is very concerned about the increasing numbers of parents and children summonsed into the truancy court system. For example, some school districts treat children as ‘truant’ whenever they arrive at school a few minutes late, even though their ‘lateness’ has resulted in only a few minutes of missed homeroom.         

“As this case suggests, we have also learned of situations in which schools seem to use the truancy courts as a way of avoiding their responsibilities to meet the needs of disabled children. A child may suffer from a serious medical or psychiatric condition that has made regular school attendance difficult or impossible, and the school district, instead of addressing the child’s need for special education or other supports, may bring truancy charges. When this is done, families already struggling to cope with a child’s disability must endure even further stress as they must also cope with the requirement that they return repeatedly to truancy court.

“Truancy court can be a particular hardship for low income working parents, who are already struggling to pay the rent, utilities, food bills and other daily living expenses for their families.  We have heard such parents express frustration at how much harder it is to make ends meet, when they must lose wages to attend truancy court.

“Under the current truancy court system, a parent’s lost work days can mount up even after the child is regularly attending school, because truancy magistrates often extend a child’s case long after the child’s school attendance has improved. When school attendance is no longer an issue, the truancy courts begin to focus on matters such as whether the child is doing all his schoolwork, what his grades are, and whether he has been too fidgety or talkative in class.  These are matters that the school districts themselves can and should address, without the personal and financial costs to children, parents and the taxpayers, of ongoing court involvement.”