The Office of the Child Advocate for the State of Rhode Island is privileged to release this publication.
Before crafting and researching this Handbook, we invited several representatives from the Rhode Island Family Court, Rhode Island Bar Association, Attorney General's Department, The American Civil Liberties Union, the Rhode Island Training School, school professionals, youths, private lawyers and advocates to help us identify fundamental legal issues, now developed and addressed in this Handbook.
The sole purpose of this Handbook is to educate teens concerning the requirements of Rhode Island law in many areas that have the greatest impact on their lives. We have attempted to simplify the law and address somewhat complicated legal issues in simple format and language for teens.
The footnotes at the back of this publication reference sources of legal authority for the benefit of lawyers and other professionals who work with youth. They may be asked t review the Handbook with youth in a variety of settings, including, but not limited to, classrooms, the Rhode Island Training School, youth civic groups, court sponsored programs and after-school programs. To further enhance the legal knowledge of youth about their own rights and the Rhode Island legal system, we will periodically update the information in this handbook.
A very special thank you to Pamelee McFarland, Esq., Legal Counsel to the Office of the Child Advocate, for her diligence, competent legal research, writing and legal expertise in making this Handbook a reality.
WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE RHODE ISLAND FAMILY COURT?
Rhode Island first created a court for children in trouble in 1944, called Juvenile Court. In 1961, that court became the Rhode Island Family Court. It had jurisdiction (that is, the power to resolve) over disputes arising from all family relations, including child support, custody, visitation, divorce and other matters relating to minors under age twenty-one (21). In 1981, the law changed and the age for minority was lowered to eighteen (18), which means that now, after your eighteenth (18th) birthday, you are no longer subject to Family Court jurisdiction. However, if a youth is in state custody before age eighteen (18), the Family Court may under certain circumstances retain jurisdiction (power and control) until age twenty-one (21).¹
Family Court acts as a protector of children (Latin: parens patriae). The Family Court must not only provide for the needs of children, however, but must also balance the needs of the entire Rhode Island community, which includes your school, public places and all of your family members.
The Family Court also administers numerous Juvenile Hearing Boards representing most communities in Rhode Island that permit the division (or alternate placements) of juveniles accused of status offenses or wayward offenses ( more on this later), which are less serious offenses than felonies.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A MINOR IN RHODE ISLAND?
In Rhode Island, a youth is a person who has not reached the age of eighteen (18) and is also called a minor. The terms youth, minor and juvenile refer to the same legal status and are interchangeable. All persons who have turned eighteen (18) are persons of full legal age. An adult is a person eighteen (18) years of age and older.²
WHAT IS AN EMANCIPATED YOUTH?
Emancipation means that you are free from the custody and control of your parents and the state before your eighteenth birthday. There is no emancipation statute (law by legislation) in Rhode Island, however, a Family Court judge may declare in a court order that you are capable (mature enough) of emancipated status. This means that you will be treated as an adult in certain ways, such as you no longer need parental consent (permission) to get medical care, enter binding contracts, move to a new residence, apply for a work permit, enroll in a school, or get a driver's license.³
IF I BECOME EMANCIPATED, IS THERE ANYTHING I LEGALLY CANNOT DO?
Yes. There are legal restrictions despite your obtaining a legal declaration of emancipated status before your eighteenth (18th) birthday, such as not being allowed to purchase or drink alcohol, and not being allowed to serve on a jury, both of which require that you be twenty-one (21) years of age.(4)