Faced with losing parental rights to her daughter, the mother complied repeatedly with the Department of Children and Families’ requests, court records show. She never missed a visit with her daughter or a parenting class. Considered cognitively impaired, she submitted to an IQ test.
Yet, when the agency required that the mother keep not one but two journals — a “particularly inappropriate” mandate given her disability, an appellate court later found — the social worker didn’t clarify for the confused woman what she was supposed to write in each. DCF officials had their own concerns about her “cognitive abilities,” but they failed to offer specific services to help her, the court said.
“The department must provide services that accommodate the parent’s special needs,’” the court wrote in the 2016 ruling, rescinding a previous order terminating the mother’s rights. “The department is required to follow its regulations.”
Too often, critics say, it doesn’t. Hobbled by a lack of expertise — and will to correct it, according to some advocates — Massachusetts’ child welfare agency has long struggled to properly accommodate children and parents with disabilities, failing them in ways both small and devastating, according to a review of lawsuits, independent reports, and Globe interviews with a dozen attorneys, researchers, and others.
The long-festering issues have now rushed to the surface, crystallized in a pair of critical federal and state investigations released within five months of each other. A state Office of the Child Advocate probe into the death of an intellectually disabled and DCF-involved teen said in March that the agency currently has no “policies, standard practices, or training curriculum” about people with disabilities.
DCF social workers are equipped with access to in-house medical or substance use specialists to help navigate cases in which a child has a complex medical condition or a parent is seeking help from a substance addiction. But they have had no such resources when, say, assessing a child with autism, investigators said.
And currently, the department is unable to say what share of the 44,000 children under its watch have a diagnosed disability, even though such children are at least three times more likely to be abused or neglected than children without one, according to a 2012 study cited by state investigators.
Separately, the agency over several years discriminated against parents with disabilities by denying them an equal chance at receiving services, a Department of Justice review concluded in a landmark settlement with DCF released in November.
The announcement came five years after federal officials first determined the agency relied on “discriminatory assumptions and stereotypes” in removing a daughter from another mother with a developmental disability. DCF, in reaching the settlement, did not admit any wrongdoing, and disputes the findings in the earlier case.
“Whether we’re talking about kids or parents with disabilities, DCF does not have the knowledge, the skills, the awareness, and in some ways, the willingness” to fix its problems, said Robyn Powell, a researcher and attorney at the National Research Center for Parents with Disabilities.
“Has this agency failed both children and parents with disabilities? It’s clear they have. But I’m not sure anyone has owned up to that,” Powell said.
The one-two punch of investigations has spurred promises of reforms, including the creation of a new disabilities director position within DCF. As mandated in the federal agreement, the department also has designated a statewide and regional coordinators to handle complaints under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and is conducting a wide-ranging review of its policies, specifically those geared toward parents.
The agency said it’s also upgrading its technological infrastructure to determine, for the first time, what share of children have some form of disability. It’s currently able to capture that information in only individual case files. “The Department of Children and Families is focused on ensuring all children and parents with disabilities have the support they need,” spokeswoman Andrea Grossman said in a statement.
But to those who help families navigate the state’s Byzantine child welfare system, the findings underscore years of complaints as well as the dearth of action from DCF to address them. Instead, advocates say, its workers often lean on a cookie-cutter approach to address the complex umbrella of developmental and physical impairments the families within its system are facing.
“All disabilities are not created equal,” said Anne Bader-Martin, a Newton-based attorney who handles DCF cases. “What the [state and federal] reports both talked about is you can’t have a one-size-fits-all solution.”
The gaps have been acutely apparent in tragedy. The state’s Office of the Child Advocate determined last month that several government agencies failed to protect David Almond before the 14-year-old died in October. The teen’s father and his father’s girlfriend, who investigators say for months hid the abuse of David and a sibling, are now charged with his murder.
Within DCF, the case spotlighted deep-seated problems. The area office overseeing David, who had autism, “lacked an understanding of [its] core characteristics,” according to the 107-page report. As David became more withdrawn and reportedly aggressive, investigators found, workers misinterpreted his changing behavior as defiance “rather than what it was — distress.”
The agency’s central office also did not include disabilities among the criteria front-line workers should consider when determining if a child is at “high risk” of abuse or neglect, a designation that could prompt more intensive oversight. Social workers hadn’t seen David in person at any point between March 2020, when he was reunited with his father, and his death in October.
“What you see in Almond and the Department of Justice [settlement] is the identification that you’re not doing enough in terms of individuals with disabilities,” said Maria Mossaides, the director of the Office of the Child Advocate. “That is a specialty. You need to know a lot about that.”
DCF officials say they are actively addressing that concern. It began screening candidates this month for a new statewide director of disabilities position, which the agency envisions being an “experienced child welfare practitioner” who can consult on cases and help expand training on disabilities, which it says already exists for managers, newly hired social workers, and others.
“This director position will bring expert knowledge of disability to the agency, and complement the work underway to strengthen supports for DCF-involved parents and children with disabilities,” said Grossman, the agency’s spokeswoman.
Some question whether it’s enough. The child advocate’s report, for example, also recommended hiring regional specialists within the department, and union officials say they fear social workers, already wearing so many hats, need more clinical backup.
“It can’t just be a consultant who sits at the central office,” said Peter MacKinnon, president of SEIU Local 509. “It speaks to the culture that you want in the agency of having a deep clinical understanding.”
Without it, attorneys and advocates say, DCF often relies on what several described as a rigid approach to planning for children and families with disabilities, including relying too often on what worked perhaps for one child and applying it to another.
“They have sort of a typical approach to most cases, and it’s a little bit of a check-box formula,” said Kate Nemens, the supervising attorney for the Family Law Project of the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee, which represents low-income parents with a mental illness or psychiatric disability. “Certainly, action plan development needs to pay attention to whether the child has a disability. It shouldn’t be a cookie-cutter approach.”
That gap compounds the already stubborn challenge of finding the right services for a child or family.
In David Almond’s case, for example, social workers did at one point seek out behavioral services for the teen and his brother, only to face waitlists of six months or more. (DCF workers nonetheless chose to send the boys to live with his father instead of delaying plans until the services were in place.)
Sometimes, the person to first identify an underlying disability can be a foster parent, not a caseworker, said Cathie Twiraga, president of the Massachusetts Alliance for Families, an advocacy group for foster families.
Recognizing that need for services can be complicated by long-running concerns that DCF does not always provide foster families with crucial, yet basic, information before a child enters their homes. State lawmakers are weighing a bill that would create a so-called foster parents’ bill of rights, including a requirement that DCF first disclose a child’s “physical and behavioral health history.”
“It’s clear [social workers] need a better understanding of what to look for,” said Twiraga, “and to not hear the word ‘autism’ and write them off.”