The ACLU of RI today announced the settlement of a federal lawsuit against the City of Woonsocket for unlawfully withholding critically needed grant funds from Sojourner House, a social service agency that helps victims of domestic violence. Filed by ACLU of RI volunteer attorneys Matthew Oliverio and Stephen Prignano last August, the lawsuit alleged that the City withheld the funds without cause or due process, and retaliated against the agency after it petitioned other government agencies for help in resolving the dispute over the funds.

Under a consent order filed in federal court, the City has agreed to formally withdraw its suspension of Sojourner House from participating in the City’s Community Development Block Grant Program and to pay the agency the $35,000 in grant funds that had been awarded to the agency but then withheld by City officials. The City, without admitting liability, also agreed to pay $25,000 in attorneys’ fees.

Sojourner House helps victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse through a number of programs, including the operation of an emergency shelter and an apartment complex in Woonsocket.  No other agency in Woonsocket provides emergency shelter for domestic violence victims. For many years, the agency has applied for and received funds via two City grant programs which support domestic violence advocacy and the shelter’s operation. The City’s abrupt and arbitrary rescission of these pass-through grants, which are paid for by the federal government, led to the lawsuit.

In 2017, Sojourner House was notified that it had been selected to receive $35,000 in funds from the grant programs. However, in January 2018, Christopher Carcifero, Woonsocket’s Deputy Director of Housing and Community Development, sent the agency a letter indicating that the City intended to withhold the funding and potentially suspend the agency’s eligibility to participate in the grant programs. He based this decision on inaccurate and irrelevant claims, including property code violations involving the emergency shelter that Sojourner House had diligently worked with the City to correct. Carcifero offered Sojourner House no procedures to formally challenge the decision.

Last February, Sojourner House executive director Vanessa Volz responded in detail to the letter and extended an invitation to work cooperatively with the City to secure the funds. Volz also contacted other city, state and federal agencies for assistance in intervening with the City on Sojourner House’s behalf to seek a reinstatement of the grants.  In direct response to this, Carcifero notified the organization that the City was reaffirming its denial of funds and also unilaterally imposing an indefinite suspension on the agency’s future participation in City grant programs – a suspension that was final and unreviewable. Carcifero specifically cited the agency’s efforts in seeking help from state and other officials as a basis for the punitive action. The settlement of the lawsuit reverses these actions.

Sojourner House Executive Director Volz said today: “Sojourner House is grateful to the ACLU’s attorneys for representing us in this matter.  These restored funds will allow us to better meet the needs of the survivors and victims who seek our services on a daily basis, 365 days a year.  In the past year, our requests for services have increased by more than 100%, and we appreciate the help we received from the ACLU to ensure that we have the resources we need to provide safe housing, support, and advocacy to individuals and children who are impacted by abuse.”

ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown added: “This was a classic case of a municipal bureaucracy trampling on basic constitutional rights. We are pleased that Sojourner House chose to stand up and fight the punitive actions taken against it, and that, as a result, their funding to serve some of the City’s most vulnerable populations has been restored.” 

More information on the lawsuit, Sojourner House v. Woonsocket, can be found here.