When she refused to have $48 deducted from her paycheck every week to pay child support, Maria Manuela Dickerson was sent to prison, without a trial. Such cases usually are reviewed monthly, but hers was not.
After 2 1/2 years in which she was all but forgotten by the judicial system and left behind bars, Dickerson was freed Monday by Rhode Island's highest judge."I'm glad that I'm free," Dickerson said moments after being released from shackles. "I don't think it was right, what they did to me."
Dickerson's confinement began when she failed to pay some of the $3,000 in support she owed for her teenage 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 deducted from her weekly paychecks.
She never signed.
Dickerson, a 47-year-old home health aide who emigrated from Portugal, said she did not sign the form because she had cared for her children since birth until her ex-husband won custody a few years ago. In addition, she does not believe women should pay child support.
Ordinarily, civil contempt cases are reviewed monthly, but Family Court Judge John O'Brien, in his January 1996 order, said that Dickerson's was not to be reviewed until she signed the wage withholding form.
Chief Justice Joseph Weisberger, who ordered Dickerson's release, said he was not sure why O'Brien did not grant a review to see whether Dickerson had paid or could afford to pay. O'Brien was on vacation and unavailable for comment, his office said.
"She did not come for review. That's the tragedy of this case," Weisberger said.
Somehow, Dickerson's active case file was moved to the state archives, gathering dust with closed cases.
Dickerson 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.
Dickerson said she tried to get her case reviewed by writing letters to Family Court but got no action. Finally, she contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed an emergency motion for Monday's hearing in state Supreme Court.
She has not seen her two children since she has been in prison. They are in the custody of their father, and it was not clear where the three live.