Calling the decision “unjust and erroneous,” the Rhode Island ACLU today filed a “friend of the court” brief urging reversal of a federal district court ruling that threw out a case against the Department of Children Youth and Families (DCYF) for the mistreatment of foster children in its care. The brief was filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston by RI ACLU volunteer attorneys Andrew Prescott and Steven Richard of the law firm of Nixon Peabody LLP.

The lawsuit, filed by the Child Advocate and the national advocacy organization Children’s Rights, argued that DCYF was systematically violating the constitutional rights of foster children, who often face mistreatment, neglect and unstable placements. However, a federal judge dismissed the suit earlier this year on the ground that only the Family Court guardians of the foster children had standing to bring a federal lawsuit on behalf of the children. In filing a brief in support of the appeal of that ruling, the ACLU called the need for unimpeded access to the courts “a critical right to protect one’s constitutional rights.”

Citing a number of U.S. Supreme Court cases that have recognized the importance of court access by individuals seeking to vindicate their constitutional rights, the brief argues:

A perverse and illogical result follows from the District Court’s outright denial of the Plaintiffs’ access to justice in federal court. Prisoners must receive help in pursuing legal action; alleged terrorists, not citizens of this country, must be allowed the habeas corpus writ; and indigent mothers must be allowed to appeal termination rulings without paying costs. But innocent Rhode Island children, victims of the worst kinds of abuse, cannot get into federal court… Simply put, this is an unjust and erroneous result to be sure.

Responding to the court’s claim that the children’s Family Court guardians are available to protect their rights, the brief notes there is “clear record evidence that these guardians ad litem have not and will not likely challenge DCYF’s actions and omissions because of alleged conflicts of interest.”

RI ACLU attorney Prescott said today: “Children suffering in a malfunctioning state system should not be denied their day in court because of an unnecessarily narrow interpretation of a procedural rule. We hope that this appeal will restore the children's right to bring this important claim in federal court.” Last week, fifteen national children’s rights organizations also filed a brief seeking reversal of the lower court ruling.

Read the news release put out by Childrens' Rights.