ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA (D.C. Civil No. 79-0277)
Before Gibbons, A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., and Sloviter, Circuit Judges.
Federal courts have served as a haven for children and families when well-meaning government authorities injure them in violation of constitutional and statutory rights. Pursuing this long revered tradition Dolores McTeague sought relief in the federal courts, alleging that her family's "fundamental rights to family integrity" had been destroyed. The district court dismissed her action, acting under the aegis of a federal statute that provides for the early dismissal of frivolous or malicious in forma pauperis complaints, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d). Whether or not she will be successful ultimately in pursuing her claim, the claim is neither frivolous nor malicious. We will therefore reverse the order of the district court and will remand for further proceedings.
The McTeague family problems were first brought to the attention of state authorities in October 1977 when Dolores McTeague, concerned because of her husband's drug consumption and his violence towards her and two of her three children, sought and obtained help from the Philadelphia Police Department.*fn1 In December, as a result of her actions, a hearing was held in the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas to decide whether state intervention would be necessary to protect the two children, David and Allen. The court ordered that David and Allen should remain with their mother,*fn2 that the father should receive psychiatric treatment, and that the case would remain within the protective supervision of the Family Court.
The next few months were difficult for the McTeague family. Mrs. McTeague, separated from her husband, was unable to locate suitable housing for herself and her three children. In April 1978 she sought social service help from the Medical College of Pennsylvania. At the suggestion of a social worker with the Medical College, she went to the Philadelphia Department of Public Welfare (DPW) to arrange for temporary foster care for all three of her children. Based on assurances from DPW that her children would be returned whenever she found suitable housing, she signed a voluntary placement agreement. She was told that as a condition of the placement she would have to relinquish her children for a minimum of six months. Knowing no alternative, she submitted to the requirement.
In May 1978, the Family Court held a hearing on the continued supervision of David and Allen. Apparently this hearing was not scheduled in response to the voluntary foster placement, but was the result of the supervision ordered in December 1977. Nevertheless, the voluntary foster placement was the subject of the proceedings and was the basis of that court's decision to order David and Allen "dependent," thereby removing them from Mrs. McTeague's custody. The two children were committed to the custody of DPW.
In September, just before the expiration of the six month period, Mrs. McTeague informed DPW that she had located suitable housing and wished to have her children back. Although DPW acknowledged that the two problems which had led to the dependency order her housing problem and the father's abusive behavior had been solved, her requests were denied without explanation.*fn3
In January 1979 she filed a complaint in federal court on behalf of herself, David, and Allen. Requesting permission to proceed in forma pauperis, she sought to challenge two aspects of the Commonwealth's actions. First, she asserted that the Commonwealth had not provided her with adequate assistance once it had decided to intervene in the family's affairs. She alleged, inter alia, that alternatives to foster care which were less intrusive on the family had not been explored, that no effort had been made to preserve or unite the family, and that no supportive services which may have strengthened the family had been provided. Second, she attacked the adjudicatory process in which she lost legal custody of two of her children. She alleged that she had been denied the right to counsel because she was not represented by counsel at either the December 1977 or the May 1978 hearing and that at neither hearing had she made a knowing and voluntary waiver. She also alleged that she had not been given her due process right of notice because she was not told that her own actions would be the subject of the hearings. She asserted that the Commonwealth acted in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and 42 U.S.C. § 1983; in violation of Title XX of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1397-1397f, Title IV the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 601-622, and federal regulations implementing these statutes; in violation of the Pennsylvania Juvenile Act, Pa.Stat.Ann. tit. 11, §§ 50-101 50-337 (Purdon);*fn4 and in violation of her common law rights. She named as defendants numerous city and state officials who she claimed were responsible for the violations of these rights. She sought declaratory, injunctive, and monetary relief.
Before receiving an answer from any of the defendants or receiving briefs from any of the parties, the district court granted her request to proceed in forma pauperis and dismissed the complaint sua sponte. The court adopted a Magistrate's Report which had urged dismissal, citing abstention principles outlined in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 91 S. Ct. 746, 27 L. Ed. 2d 669 (1971), Juidice v. Vail, 430 U.S. 327, 97 S. Ct. 1211, 51 L. Ed. 2d 376 (1977), and Salvati v. Dale, 364 F. Supp. 691 (W.D.Pa.1973). Mrs. McTeague appeals from the dismissal.*fn5
Since 1892, when the predecessor to 28 U.S.C. § 1915 was enacted,*fn6 the doors of the federal courts have been open to the poor and the rich alike. Under this statute an indigent individual may initiate a claim or defend his life or property, without an obligation to pay the court costs that most parties must bear, and in some instances with the assistance of court-appointed counsel. With Section 1915 Congress has guaranteed "that no citizen shall be denied an opportunity to commence, prosecute, or defend an action . . . solely because his poverty makes it impossible for him to pay or secure the costs" of litigation. Adkins v. E. I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., Inc., 335 U.S. 331, 342, 69 S. Ct. 85, 90, 93 L. Ed. 43 (1948).
For many, Section 1915 has been the only route to justice and our courts have long honored in forma pauperis complaints. Some in forma pauperis cases have restructured the fundamental framework for our system of justice. See, e.g., Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 83 S. Ct. 792, 9 L. Ed. 2d 799 (1963). See generally Lewis, Gideon's Trumpet (1964) (outlining the history of the Gideon decision); The ...