The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced Thursday that the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families would change its policies to make sure it complies with federal protections for people with disabilities.
At the core of the changes is a commitment by DCF that the child welfare agency will "not base decisions about removal of a child on stereotypes or generalizations about persons with disabilities," DOJ officials said in a statement. Instead, decisions about an individual's ability to maintain parental rights will be based on "objective facts."
In a statement, the DOJ outlined how it would implement changes, including:
- the appointment of statewide and regional coordinators to oversee the agency's Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance;
- the creation of a so-called "Parents with Disabilities" policy that outlines processes for parents requesting accommodations or filing complaints related to a disability;
- training for staffers on the agency's "obligations to parents with disabilities," along with its new policies and procedures;
- and "periodically" submitted reports to the DOJ on how DCF handles accommodation requests and complaints.
The new policies are being implemented five years after the DOJ, as well as U.S. Health and Human Services, found that DCF's child welfare services had wrongfully attempted to strip a mother with disabilities of custody over her infant daughter "based on assumptions about her disability."
"The stakes are never higher than when a parent faces the possibility of losing a child," said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, of the DOJ's civil rights division. "Individuals with disabilities have just as much a right to raise their children as any other person in this free country, and no government should unnecessarily infringe upon that sacred right."
The mother at the center of the DOJ's investigation was far from alone; there were several claims of discrimination against DCF that the federal government has since substantiated.
Since 2015, the DOJ said several other parents have come forward alleging DCF failed to provide "reasonable modifications" or interpreters for hearing-impaired parents, and "otherwise denied parents with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from DCF's programs and services," the statement said.
Dreiband added that he believed the agreement would impact thousands of families in Massachusetts, and that the new processes could serve "as a roadmap" for child welfare agencies across the U.S.
In a statement, DCF spokesperson Andrea Grossman said the Baker administration has been working to rebuild the department since 2015 "through a series of major reforms."
"DCF remains committed to constantly improving the way it serves children and families across the Commonwealth, including families protected by the ADA," Grossman said in the statement.
With additional reporting by WBUR's Deborah Becker