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Massachusetts DCF repeatedly discriminated against parents with disabilities, federal officials find

Under ‘landmark’ settlement, state agency agrees to change policies

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, Governor Charlie Baker, and union official Peter MacKinnon listened as Commissioner for the Department of Children and Families Linda Spears addressed reporters in this file photo from 2015.
Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, Governor Charlie Baker, and union official Peter MacKinnon listened as Commissioner for the Department of Children and Families Linda Spears addressed reporters in this file photo from 2015.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families repeatedly discriminated against parents with disabilities, and must reshape its policies so to not rely on “unsupported stereotypes” when deciding whether to separate children from their parents, according to a watershed settlement with federal authorities.

The agreement between the US Department of Justice, the US Department of Health and Human Services, and DCF caps a years-long investigation into the state agency. Federal officials said they substantiated a variety of allegations, including that the state failed to provide interpreters to individuals with hearing impairments and “otherwise denied parents with disabilities an equal opportunity” to receive services.

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Federal officials had found in 2015 that DCF had discriminated against a mother with a “mild intellectual disability” when it sought to terminate her parental rights to her infant daughter in 2012.

The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division said it received similar complaints in the five years since the initial findings, and substantiated “numerous” others. DCF’s administration of its policies was effectively “discriminating against parents with disabilities,” the Department of Justice said in a statement.

Advocates for parents and those with disabilities on Friday cheered the agreement, saying it shed light on what they consider both a systemic problem within the agency and one not limited to only Massachusetts’s child welfare system.

“That’s the core of this issue: That there was a bias, an assumption, that because someone had an intellectual developmental disability that they therefore couldn’t raise a child,” said Dan Shannon, executive director of the Massachusetts Developmental Disabilities Council, an independent state agency.

“Progress is made in inches. But this is a significant jump,” Shannon said of the agreement. “This is a precedent-setting decision.”

Under the settlement, DCF did not admit to any wrongdoing, and the Department of Justice said it doesn’t constitute a finding that the agency broke the law. But DCF is required to appoint a new statewide disability coordinator, begin amending many of its policies within months, and agree not to make decisions about removing a child from his or her parents based “on stereotypes or generalizations about persons with disabilities.”

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Andrea Grossman, a DCF spokeswoman, said Governor Charlie Baker’s administration “has been intentionally rebuilding the Department of Children and Families” since he took office in 2015, including through reform efforts and working with lawmakers and union officials.

“DCF remains committed to constantly improving the way it serves children and families across the Commonwealth, including families protected by the ADA,” Grossman said, referring the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Department of Justice said this is the first settlement it has ever reached to address disability discrimination by a state child welfare agency, and referred to it as a “landmark agreement.”

“We believe this agreement will not only help thousands of families in Massachusetts, but also will provide a roadmap for child welfare agencies nationwide on how to treat parents with disabilities with the fairness, dignity, and respect that they deserve,” Eric Dreiband, the assistant attorney general of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement released Thursday.

The investigation announced this week had its roots in a complaint involving a then-19-year-old mother, referred to by the pseudonym “Sara Gordon,” whose daughter was removed from her custody in 2012 days after her birth and put into foster care. In January 2015, shortly after Baker was first sworn into office, federal officials determined that DCF had acted on “discriminatory assumptions and stereotypes” and put what they called an excessive focus on determining the mother’s IQ.

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The violations, federal officials said in their 2015 report, “highlight systemic failures by DCF.” At the time, the agency denied any wrongdoing. L. Mark Watkins, an attorney that represented the family, said Friday that a judge later awarded guardianship of the child to Gordon’s parents in 2015.

Kate Nemens, the supervising attorney for the Family Law Project of the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee, said Friday she’s “really reluctant” to say she’s seen any meaningful shift in the department’s approach to parents with disabilities since the 2015 report.

“I’m not aware that any administration has ever gotten down into the weeds with the department on these issues,” Nemens said.

She said it’s important for DCF to bring in advocates and voices from the community to implement the changes required under the agreement, instead of relying solely on the agency itself that “engaged in systemic discrimination.”

“This is a pretty monumental milestone that we’ve reached,” Nemens said. “My concern is really around the department’s next steps. It’s really critical that . . . the process is going to lead to meaningful change.”

Under the agreement, DCF must also offer annual training to its employees and every six months, provide federal officials with data on disability-related complaints and other requests.

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“It really will involve a culture shift,” Susan Elsen, a child welfare policy advocate at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, said of implementing the agreement effectively.

Nothing in the settlement specifically prohibits DCF from removing a child from a parent who has a disability. But DCF must make a case-by-case assessment in determining whether the child faces imminent risk of abuse or neglect, and officials should not base the decision on a parent’s disability, diagnosis, or what it called intelligence measures, such as an IQ score, alone.

“In determining whether an individual poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others, DCF must make an individualized assessment, based on reasonable judgment that relies on current medical knowledge or on the best available objective evidence,” the agreement reads.

Michael Dsida, deputy chief counsel for the Children and Family Law Division at the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defenders office, called the settlement a “big win” for parents with disabilities, their children, and the state as a whole. His hope, he said, is that individual determinations will be the norm going forward.

“Removing children from their families and putting them in foster care should only happen as a last resort and should never be done just because a parent has a disability,” Dsida said. “The settlement agreement can help us put an end to that practice.”

Marlene Sallo, executive director of the Disability Law Center, said the problems identified by the federal officials’ investigation are “not unique to Massachusetts.” Before coming to Massachusetts, Sallo said she worked as a child welfare attorney for the state of Florida and later, representing parents in family court.

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“Don’t expect that because you approach a case one way, with a parent who does not have a disability, that that approach is one-size-fits-all. Because it’s not,” she said. “All DCF agencies, not just Massachusetts, need to take that into account.”

The settlement marked the second time in recent days in which federal officials alleged problems within a Massachusetts state agency. Days earlier, the Department of Justice said in an unrelated investigation that the state Department of Correction had violated the constitutional rights of mentally ill inmates, because they failed to provide them with proper care.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.