DCF has lengthy failed households with disabilities, advocates say. A pair of investigations is spurring a reckoning
“The department must provide services that meet the special needs of parents,” the court wrote in the 2016 ruling, overturning a previous order to end the mother’s rights. “The department has to obey its rules.”
Too often, critics say, this is not the case. According to some proponents, the Massachusetts Children’s Department has long had problems adequately accommodating children and parents with disabilities and has failed both small and devastating, according to a review of the lawsuits, independent reports and Globe interviews with a dozen lawyers, researchers, and others.
The long-running problems have now surfaced and crystallized in two critical federal and state investigations published within five months of each other. A state bureau of the Child Advocate, which is investigating the death of a mentally disabled teenager involved in DCF, said in March that the agency currently has no “guidelines, standard practices, or training plans” for people with disabilities.
DCF social workers have access to in-house medical or substance specialists to help navigate cases where a child has a complex disease or a parent seeks help from a substance addiction. But they didn’t have such resources when examining a child with autism, for example, investigators said.
Currently, the department cannot say what proportion of the 44,000 children under their observation have a diagnosed disability, although they are at least three times more likely to be abused or neglected than children without one by state investigators, according to a cited 2012 study.
Regardless of this, the agency discriminated against parents with disabilities for several years by denying them an equal opportunity to receive services. This was the result of a review by the Ministry of Justice, which was concluded in a landmark agreement with DCF published in November.
The announcement came five years after federal officials first discovered that the agency relied on “discriminatory assumptions and stereotypes” to remove a daughter from another mother with a developmental disorder. When DCF reached the settlement, it admitted no wrongdoing and denied the findings in the previous case.
“Whether they are children or parents with disabilities, DCF lacks the knowledge, skills, awareness and, in some ways, willingness” to correct its problems, said Robyn Powell, researcher and attorney at National Research Center for Parents with disabilities.
“Has this agency failed both children and parents with disabilities? It is clear that they have. But I’m not sure if anyone did anything to that, ”Powell said.
The double blow of the investigation has sparked promises of reform, including the creation of a new position as director of disabilities within the DCF. As required by the federal agreement, the department has also appointed state and regional coordinators to handle complaints under the Disabled Americans Act and is conducting a thorough review of its policies, particularly those directed at parents.
The agency said it is also upgrading its technological infrastructure to determine for the first time what percentage of children have some form of disability. It is currently only able to collect this information in individual cases. “The Department of Children and Families is focused on ensuring that all children and parents with disabilities get the support they need,” spokeswoman Andrea Grossman said in a statement.
For those helping families navigate the state’s Byzantine child support system, the results highlight years of grievances as well as the lack of action by the DCF to address them. Instead, proponents say, staff often rely on a cookie-cutter approach to tackle the complex screen of developmental and physical impairments that families face in their system.
“Not all disabilities are created equal,” said Anne Bader-Martin, a Newton-based attorney who handles DCF cases. “What the [state and federal] According to reports, neither of them have a single solution. “
The loopholes became apparent in the tragedy. The children’s attorney’s state office found last month that several government agencies failed to protect David Almond before the 14-year-old died in October. The teenager’s father and his father’s girlfriend, who investigators say had been hiding the abuse of David and a sibling for months, are now charged with murder.
Within DCF, the case highlighted deep-seated problems. The county office overseeing David, who had autism, “had no understanding of this [its] Core features, ”says the 107-page report. As David became more withdrawn and reportedly more aggressive, investigators found that workers had misunderstood his changing behavior as defiance, “rather than for what it was – distress”.
Agency headquarters has also not counted disabilities among the criteria front-line workers should consider when determining whether a child is at “high risk” of abuse or neglect. This designation could lead to more intensive supervision. The social workers had never seen David in person between March 2020, when he was reunited with his father, and his death in October.
“What you see in Almond and the Justice Department [settlement] is the finding that you are not doing enough when it comes to people with disabilities, ”said Maria Mossaides, director of the children’s lawyer’s office. “It’s a specialty. You have to know a lot about that. “
DCF officials say they are actively addressing this issue. Screening of candidates for a new statewide position as Director of Disabilities began this month. The agency aims to be an “experienced child welfare practitioner” who can advise on cases and help expand the disability training that it claims is already in place for newly hired managers from managers to workers and others.
“This position as director will bring disability expertise to the agency and complement ongoing work to strengthen support for parents and children with disabilities involved in DCF,” said Grossman, agency spokeswoman.
Some ask if it is enough. For example, the child advocate’s report also recommended hiring regional specialists within the department, and union officials say they fear that social workers who already wear so many hats will need more clinical support.
“It can’t just be an advisor sitting at headquarters,” said Peter MacKinnon, President of SEIU Local 509. “It speaks to the culture you want the agency to have for deep clinical understanding.”
Without them, lawyers and attorneys say, DCF often relies on what has been termed rigid planning approaches for children and families with disabilities, including, too often, what may have worked for one child and another.
“They take a typical approach for the most part, and it’s a bit of a check-box formula,” said Kate Nemens, the supervisory attorney for the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee’s family law project, which depicts low-income parents with a mental illness or psychiatric disability . “Obviously, when developing a plan of action, one must consider whether the child has a disability. It shouldn’t be a cookie cutter approach. “
This loophole exacerbates the already stubborn challenge of finding the right services for a child or family.
In David Almond’s case, for example, social workers once sought behavioral services for the teenager and his brother, only to get waiting lists of six months or more. (DCF staff still chose to send the boys to his father instead of postponing plans until the services were in place.)
Sometimes the person who first identifies an underlying disability may be a foster parent, not a social worker, said Cathie Twiraga, president of the Massachusetts Alliance for Families, a foster family advocacy group.
Recognizing the need for services can be made difficult by longstanding concerns that DCF does not always provide foster families with essential, but basic, information before a child enters their homes. State lawmakers are considering a bill that would create a bill of rights for foster parents, including a requirement that DCF must first disclose a child’s “physical and behavioral health history”.
“It’s clear [social workers] I need a better understanding of what to look for, “said Twiraga,” and not hearing and copying the word “autism”. “
Matt Stout can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.