PITTSBURGH - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit today against Fayette County Children and Youth Services (FCCYS) charging the agency violated the rights of a father to raise his three young children. The agency improperly removed the children from their father's home nearly two years ago and has prohibited contact with them for almost a year. There have been no allegations from anyone that the father poses any danger to the children or that the children have been abused. The ACLU is asking the federal court in Pittsburgh to issue an order to reunite the family immediately.

The father, referred to in legal papers as "John Doe" to protect his 8-, 6- and 5-year-old children, said, "My kids are my whole life and I just want them back." Doe had custody of the children prior to their removal because their mother was, and continues to be, unable to care for them.

Sara Rose, an ACLU of Pennsylvania staff attorney who is representing the father, said, "Fayette County CYS has abused its power to place children in state custody by removing these children from their father even though the children have never been abused and are in no danger of abuse. As a result, Doe has had no contact with his children for almost a year and has not lived with his children for almost two years. That is time with his children that he will never get back."

The matter began in September 2006, when FCCYS began an investigation into whether Doe had committed child abuse by having a consensual relationship with a 16-year-old girl. The police refused to prosecute Doe, since 16 is the age of consent in Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, FCCYS concluded in a one-sided investigation that Doe should be "indicated" for child abuse, a finding Doe has appealed. That sole finding has triggered the events leading to today's lawsuit.

In September 2006, despite no allegations that Doe abused or posed a danger to his children, FCCYS threatened to place the children in foster care unless Doe immediately agreed to move them to his parents' house and have no unsupervised visits with them. For the first year Doe visited the children every day. But in August 2007 FCCYS determined that under its policy Doe could no longer have any contact with the children until he completed sex-offender-treatment therapy. Doe, who has never been convicted or even charged with a sex offense, has refused to participate. Accordingly, he has not been allowed to even speak with his children by telephone for nearly a year.

Today's lawsuit charges that FCCYS's policy of forbidding parents to have contact with any children, including their own, when there is no allegation of abuse or danger, violates the parents' right to associate with and raise their children. The lawsuit also alleges that the agency violated Doe's due process rights by failing to advise Doe of his right under Pennsylvania law to retain custody of his children, to have a judge decide whether the children should be removed, and to be appointed a lawyer to help him.

"Fayette County circumvented avenues established under Pennsylvania law that empower child-welfare agencies to protect abused and neglected children because there was no legitimate basis to remove Doe's children from his care," said Witold Walczak, ACLU of Pennsylvania's Legal Director and co-counsel in the case. "Instead, Fayette County has employed its own unique system of rogue justice, one that completely ignores a parents' most precious right to associate with their children."

Doe's is not the first case of its kind. FCCYS has applied its policy to separate other parents from their children without any due process or evidence of abuse. Last summer, in another case, FCCYS refused the ACLU of Pennsylvania's request to abandon the policy, but then quickly reunited the parent with his children to forestall a lawsuit. Consequently, "this case is not only necessary to vindicate Doe's rights and reunite him with his children, it is crucial to protecting the rights of every parent in Fayette County to raise and care for their kids," said Rose.

Doe says he hopes that no other Fayette County parent will ever have to suffer what he has. "I don't want this to happen to anyone else. I want someone to govern FCCYS because that office is out of control. They are walking in and rolling over people like bulldozers and no one's doing anything about it," he said.

The case, Doe v. Fayette County Children and Youth Services, was filed in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh. Attorney David Millstein joins Rose and Walczak in representing Doe. A copy of the complaint and other information about the case can be found here.