HHS Office for Civil Rights Reaches Landmark Agreement with Massachusetts Department of Children and Families to Address Discrimination Against Parents with Disabilities

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced today that they have reached a landmark agreement with the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF).

The agreement resolves findings by HHS and DOJ that DCF discriminated against a parent with a developmental disability in the administration of its child welfare program in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  This is the first joint HHS and DOJ settlement to address disability discrimination by a state agency involving parents with intellectual disabilities.  This is the third agreement that HHS’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has reached with state child welfare entities to safeguard the rights of parents with intellectual disabilities, following agreements with Georgia and Oregon

“Parents with disabilities should never lose custody of their children due to discriminatory assumptions about their abilities. The love of a parent, coupled with proper support services, can overcome a multiplicity of challenges,” said Roger Severino, Director of the HHS OCR. “We are pleased to have reached this great result with DOJ and Massachusetts.”

“The stakes are never higher than when a parent faces the possibility of losing their child,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the DOJ Civil Rights Division. “While child welfare agencies are faced with challenging and weighty decisions on a daily basis, they must always strive to ensure no child is removed from the home on the basis of unsupported stereotypes or discriminatory attitudes. This agreement will level the playing field for parents with disabilities. It will ensure that they are treated as individuals, and that they receive the supports and services they need to have an equal opportunity to retain or regain custody of their children. We believe this agreement will not only impact thousands of families in Massachusetts, but will also provide a roadmap for other child welfare agencies nationwide on how to treat parents with disabilities with the fairness, dignity, and respect that they deserve.” 

This Settlement Agreement resolves a noncompliance Letter of Findings jointly issued by HHS OCR and DOJ on January 29, 2015. That investigation found that, for more than two years after the removal of the mother’s two-day old infant, DCF denied her an equal opportunity to benefit from appropriate supports and services, including in-home services and her existing family supports and also denied her numerous requests for disability-based accommodations, including hands-on demonstrations of the parenting skills DCF was requiring her to learn. This new settlement also resolves additional numerous similar complaints filed against DCF over the past five years. 

Pursuant to Title II of the ADA and Section 504 child welfare agencies are required to ensure that parents with disabilities are afforded an equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from all child welfare programs and activities, including those services aimed at helping parents preserve or reunify their families.  This may require, among other things, reasonable modifications to an agency’s policies, practices, and procedures when the modifications are necessary to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability, as well as taking appropriate steps to ensure that communications with DCF-involved parents with disabilities and their companions are as effective as communications with others.

DCF agreed to work with HHS OCR and DOJ to ensure full compliance with DCF’s obligations under Section 504 and the ADA. Under today’s agreement, DCF will take critical steps to ensure the Section 504 and ADA’s protections extend to parents with disabilities throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  DCF will not base decisions about removal of a child on stereotypes or generalizations about persons with disabilities. Rather, DCF will base such decisions on an individualized assessment of the parent with a disability and objective facts.  Additionally, DCF will appoint statewide and regional coordinators to oversee DCF’s efforts to comply with Title II and Section 504; create a new Parents with Disabilities Policy, including processes for requesting disability-based accommodations and filing disability-based complaints; and train staff on DCF’s obligations to parents with disabilities and its new policies and procedures. 

During the term of the Settlement Agreement, HHS OCR will monitor DCF’s compliance with these federal laws and will be available to provide technical assistance.

Click to read the full agreement text here.

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For more information on HHS OCR, please visit www.hhs.gov/ocr

For more information about HHS’s work against discrimination on the basis of disability, please visit: www.hhs.gov/civil-rights/for-individuals/disability.

To learn more about HHS protections from discrimination in the child welfare system, please visit: www.hhs.gov/civil-rights/for-individuals/special-topics/adoption.

To learn more about non-discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, age, and disability; conscience and religious freedom; and health information privacy laws, and to file a complaint with OCR, please visit www.hhs.gov/ocr.

Follow HHS OCR on Twitter @HHSOCR.