On Monday, the Rhode Island ACLU filed Boyer v. Jeremiah, a class-action lawsuitchallenging the extremely troubling practices of Rhode Island's truancy court. Ostensibly created to support struggling students and help them stay in school, the truancy court has instead been used to punish students who may have difficulty paying attention in class or doing their schoolwork because of special educational needs, are unable to attend school because of medical or emotional difficulties, or who have family caretaking obligations that cause them to arrive at school late.
Also troubling is the fact that the truancy court operates under a shroud of secrecy. Truancy court hearings are conducted without any stenographic or audio recording of the proceedings, and frequently there are no formal written court orders or directives, creating the untenable situation of a parent or child's word against that of a judge. The files of the students who appear in truancy court are kept under lock and key, inaccessible even to attorneys retained to represent these youths.
In gathering information to prepare the suit, one of our volunteer attorneys, Amy Tabor, needed to get copies of our juvenile clients' truancy court files. Even though she had signed authorizations from the parents to access those files, the court clerk refused to let her see them unless and until she got a signed authorization order directly from the chief judge of the family court. When the chief judge was unavailable, she had to track down a duty judge to provide the authorization. After jumping through all those hoops, Amy returned to the clerk's office only to have the clerk tell her that she could only inspect the files while standing in the clerk's office, and that she would not be able to make copies of them. Since some of the files were quite voluminous, this restriction made it very difficult for Amy to review and analyze the records in any meaningful way.
If the barriers are this great for a trained attorney, we can only imagine how insurmountable they must be for most parents with children called before the court. As such, we are looking not only to the courts, but also to the Rhode Island legislature to vindicate the rights of our clients. House Bill 2010-H 7760 (PDF), introduced by Rep. Michael Marcello, would make explicit that juveniles and their attorneys are authorized to inspect and copy the child's truancy court records at any time. Confidentiality of family court records is certainly critical, but making access an obstacle course for the juvenile's own attorney is completely inappropriate, foremost because it impedes effective oversight of the truancy court's actions and hampers a lawyer's ability to vigorously represent his or her client. We are hopeful that the legislature will recognize this problem and act quickly to fix it.
The attention that our lawsuit has brought to the truancy court's questionable procedures has already had a salutary effect. Within a few hours of filing the suit, we heard from more than a half-dozen distressed parents who had been through similar experiences as our clients. Perhaps most importantly, our efforts made these parents — and many others, we're sure — recognize for the first time that they were not alone in their struggles and mistreatments by the court and that their misgivings about the court, far from being unreasonable, are quite justifiable.