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Judge Orders R.I. Woman’s Release

August 17, 1998

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) _ A woman who was sent to prison without a trial for refusing to pay child support was freed Monday by Rhode Island’s highest judge after languishing behind bars, all but forgotten by the system, for 2 1/2 years.

Maria Manuela Dickerson ``was left to rot,″ said Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Rhode Island. ``It looks like the system forgot about Maria.″

Ms. Dickerson’s confinement began when she failed to pay some of the $3,000 in support she owed for her teen-age daughter and son. A judge in January 1996 found her in contempt and ordered her imprisoned until she agreed to sign a form to have $48 a week deducted from her paycheck.

She never signed.

Ordinarily, civil contempt cases are reviewed monthly, but Family Court Judge John O’Brien ordered no such review.

Chief Justice Joseph Weisberger, who ordered Ms. Dickerson’s release, said he wasn’t sure why O’Brien did not grant a review. O’Brien was on vacation and unavailable for comment, his office said.

Ms. Dickerson, a 47-year-old home health aide, did not have a lawyer during the case, and none was appointed. Until recently, the state did not provide attorneys for the poor in civil cases.

Ms. Dickerson said she tried to get her case reviewed by writing letters to Family Court, but got no action. Finally, she contacted the ACLU, which filed an emergency motion for Monday’s hearing in state Supreme Court.

``I’m glad that I’m free,″ Ms. Dickerson said moments after being released from shackles. ``I don’t think it was right, what they did to me.″

The chief justice is also ordering a review of everyone imprisoned under Family Court orders.

Weisberger said the purpose of civil contempt is to force someone to comply, and generally the court should take a second look to see whether the person has obeyed or cannot afford to pay.

He has scheduled arguments for Oct. 20 to determine whether Ms. Dickerson was illegally held without her right to a lawyer and the right to a jury trial.

Ms. Dickerson, who emigrated from Portugal, said she did not sign the form because she had cared for her children since birth until her ex-husband, Charles, won custody a few years ago. In addition, she said, she does not believe women should pay child support.

She has not seen her two teen-age children since she has been in prison. They are in the custody of their father, and it was not clear where he lives.

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