FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: January 26, 2021
Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice
BOSTON, MA – The Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice today released a report citing the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) for failing to provide federally mandated language access to limited English proficient (LEP) families involved with the agency. As a result, LEP parents cannot meaningfully comprehend or participate in the DCF process and subsequently face an increased likelihood of separation compared to their English-speaking counterparts.
“A lack of DCF investigators who speak a family’s language or dialect or are not completely fluent often leads to miscommunication about events and circumstances, which in turn can lead to erroneous conclusions about the family by DCF,” said Jessica R. Salinas-Thomas, Esq., an attorney with the Committee for Public Counsel Services who represents DCF-involved families. “… These problems can lead to a delayed reunification for a family or even the termination of a parent’s rights and a child’s loss of its family and community.”
The report examines the various ways in which the Department of Children and Families violates the civil language access rights of parents, the reasons for this systemic failure, and outlines steps that DCF, the Massachusetts Legislature, and the Massachusetts legal community should take to prevent the unjust separation of families and ensure the Commonwealth’s child welfare system complies with federal civil rights law.
“This research shows that even at the most basic level, DCF is failing to provide adequate language access, as well as the very real and irreparable harm LEP families consequently endure,” said Deborah Silva, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. “Because of the trauma and instability children separated from their parents experience, which can have a profound and devastating impact on their mental health, emotional development, and ability to succeed in school, it is urgent that we take action to address this now. We call on DCF and our state legislators to make the changes necessary to ensure and protect the civil rights of all Massachusetts families.”
The findings of this report show that child welfare decisions involving LEP parents are often unjustly impacted by language access. The report’s findings include:
- Despite a few individual “superstar” caseworkers, the majority of LEP parents do not receive sufficient interpretation services, document translation services, or social services in their primary language.
- A lack of competent and impartial interpretation plagues DCF casework; it is estimated that an interpreter is present in only 25% of the LEP home visits the agency conducts.
- LEP families regularly do not receive Action Plans, letters, notices, and agreements translated into their primary languages.
- Often LEP parents experience wait times double those that English-speaking parents face when trying to attend the social services (such as therapy, substance use disorder meetings, or parenting classes) that are mandated by DCF.
“Language-based discrimination denies families and workers across the state equal access to their own government and the services they need,” said State Representative Adrian Madaro (D-East Boston). “It has no place in the Commonwealth, and as Massachusetts Appleseed’s report shows, the destructive impact it has on families can be permanent. If Massachusetts is truly committed to the principles of fairness, equity, and justice, then we need to guarantee language access and inclusion for all.”
A new state bill developed by the statewide Language Access Coalition, of which Massachusetts Appleseed is a member, and championed by Representative Madaro and Senator Sal DiDomenico would help remedy this problem by strengthening and standardizing language access requirements for state agencies. But the Massachusetts Legislature, DCF, and the legal community must take additional steps laid out in the report, including:
- Improved policies and practices at DCF, such as implementing language access trainings for DCF staff, prioritizing hiring bilingual staff, ensuring contracted interpreters are competent and impartial, and publicizing the process for making language access complaints.
- Increased trainings for staff of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, who should strongly advocate for their LEP clients’ meaningful access to DCF services through all means available, including the submission of complaints, if necessary.
- Statewide legislation that provides a right for individuals to sue state-level government entities for disparate impact discrimination.
- The exploration of alternative legal strategies for enforcing the rights of LEP families, including but not limited to impact litigation.
Representatives Joan Meschino and Adrian Madaro intend to file a civil rights bill, entitled An Act to create access to justice, which would restore the right of an individual to bring a claim in state court against a government agency when policies have a disparate impact on individuals designated as a protected class under Massachusetts state law. In this instance, the rights and case outcomes of limited English proficient families and parents are compromised by the department’s failure to provide language access during proceedings and services.
“Disparate impact discrimination is discrimination, regardless of intent,” said State Representative Joan Meschino (D-Hull). “Our bill, An Act to create access to justice, enfranchises those who are discriminated against to take legal action in defense of their civil rights. Access to state courts is essential to safeguard the civil rights of Massachusetts families, and Representative Madaro and I look forward to introducing the bill in the coming weeks.”
“The day-to-day work of DCF caseworkers is hard, and the stakes are high,” said Thomas Roy, a court-appointed attorney representing indigent clients who has worked closely with DCF. “But ultimately, it’s about communicating effectively with parents, and when that doesn’t happen, families are the ones who bear the consequences which can include a termination of parental rights. The end of the legal relationship between parent and child, the equivalent of a death sentence to a family.”
The report, “Families Torn Apart: Language-Based Discrimination at the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families” is available online: https://massappleseed.org/reports/families-torn-apart/
About the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice:
Massachusetts Appleseed’s mission is to promote equal rights and opportunities for Massachusetts residents by developing and advocating for systemic solutions to social justice issues. We research the ways in which the justice system, schools, and government agencies are systematically failing our most vulnerable residents. We collaborate with community partners to ensure that recommended plans of action are practical and comprehensive. We advocate for the implementation of solutions that will create lasting change.
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