Inadequate Interpretation Services At Mass. DCF Lead To Risk Of Wrongful Family Separation, Complaint Alleges

WGBH / Jul 14, 2021

By Saraya Wintersmith

A group of non-profit and legal advocacy organizations have filed a federal complaint against the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, claiming that agency's failure to provide adequate interpretation services for non-English speakers leads to risk of wrongful family separation and violates civil rights law.

The case was brought by Lawyers for Civil Rights and the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice on behalf of the non-profit Haitian-Americans United, the Greater Boston Latino Network and an unnamed Latinx mother from Methuen who claims her limited English proficiency led to the agency substantiating a child neglect claim against her.

The complaint, filed Wednesday with the federal Department of Health and Human Services, references a recent report from the Massachusetts Appleseed Center, saying when DCF fails to ensure language access, parents with limited English are "unable to comprehend or participate in DCF's processes."

"Parents are then deemed 'unengaged' or 'willfully non-compliant,'" the complaint says, arguing the situation violates Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. "As a result, [limited-English proficient] families face an increased likelihood of separation compared to their English-speaking counterparts."

The report did not quantify how much more often DCF separated families where the parents have limited English skills.

A DCF spokesperson said that the department is reviewing the complaint.

The spokesperson also pointed to data showing that, as of May 2021, about 8,500 children were placed in some form of DCF care. The data did not categorize the child placements by race or ethnicity. But, DCF data from October 2020 shows that Hispanic and Latino children accounted for 32 percent of those within the agency's care. White children represent 40 percent, Black children make up 14 percent.

The legal filing puts the spotlight back on the state's child welfare agency, which came under fire earlier this year after the death of David Almond, an autistic teenager from Fall River who was inexplicably returned to his father’s care and subsequently died of starvation. Almond’s father is white.

The legal filing also references a similar complaint from 2018, which yielded a set of voluntary compliance measures for DCF to bring its language access practices up to federal standards.

The new complaint argues "stronger measures" are necessary to make DCF comply and asks the Department of Health and Human Services to pause DCF's federal funding until it adopts a comprehensive language access remediation plan.

"We think that the time has come for the federal agency to conduct a kind of regular oversight in order to ensure that DCF doesn't just, after a few months, start going back to its old ways of failing to provide adequate language access," said Lauren Sampson, an attorney with Lawyers for Civil Rights.

Data from the Boston Planning and Development Agency shows that, in 2019, about 10% of the state's adult population could be classified as "limited-English speaking," a point that Deborah Silva, executive director of the Massachusetts Appleseed Center, said underscores the growing need to prioritize language access services.

"Massachusetts is one of the most linguistically diverse states in the country, and this is not news," she said. "[DCF and other state agencies] should be providing services in multiple languages and making sure that these very important proceedings themselves, as well as the consequences, are clearly understood by the folks that they're interacting with."

In its “Families Torn Apart” report, Silva's organization cites estimates that an interpreter is present in about 25 percent of DCF home visits, and in other settings less frequently, despite needs for interpretation services at other points of interaction with the agency.

Additionally, in its latest quarterly report, DCF said about 7% of people it served indicated Spanish as their primary language.

At least one state lawmaker, Springfield Sen. Adam Gomez, has said publicly that, in the realm of child welfare, families of color are frequently treated differently than white families.

Sampson pointed back to Massachusetts Appleseed Center's research and agreed.

“[There is] overwhelming evidence that families of color do not fare as well as their white and wealthy counterparts in the child welfare system, or indeed in almost any interaction with state or local governments,” she said.