A collection of advocacy groups asked federal health officials Wednesday to investigate Massachusetts’ child welfare agency, charging that it is discriminating against immigrant families by repeatedly failing to provide parents whose primary language isn’t English with interpreter services.
The complaint filed by Lawyers for Civil Rights and the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice accuses the Department of Children and Families of depriving non-English-speaking parents of “meaningful language access” — a potential violation of federal civil rights law and a failure the complaint attributes to a “deliberate indifference.”
Such failures, advocates say, can have seismic consequences for families who are being investigated by DCF and face the risk of losing their children to the state foster care system, where Black and Latino children are already disproportionately represented.
A DCF spokeswoman said Wednesday the agency would review the complaint.
“It’s not limited to one region. It’s not limited to one language,” said Deborah Silva, executive director of the Massachusetts Appleseed Center, which produced a report in January examining how DCF provides interpretation services. Its findings underpin the complaint filed Wednesday with the US Department of Health and Human Services. The department’s Office for Civil Rights probed a similar complaint against DCF and issued a series of recommendations to the agency in 2018.
“Over and over again, they back-burnered this issue,” Silva said of DCF. “It just hasn’t been made a priority — and this is despite the fact that the federal government has already investigated them.”
The groups charge that DCF social workers frequently rely on relatives, neighbors, or even children to help communicate for parents instead of trained interpreters. In what they call an egregious example, DCF social workers asked a father accused of violently abusing his partner to interpret for the partner, according to the complaint. (DCF declined to address specific allegations.)
In the case of a Methuen mother, whose primary language is Spanish and is one of the complainants, the agency allegedly did not translate a single document for her while it investigated allegations of neglect concerning her son, who is autistic. It was only when she spoke to her attorney, who is fluent in Spanish, that she learned DCF had substantiated the allegations, the groups said.
Even DCF’s Office of the Ombudsman, which is designed to help people navigate the child welfare system, offers its hotline in only English and Spanish, the complaint said.
“DCF’s subsequent and systematic failure to provide interpreters for [limited English proficient] visitations, to translate vital documents to consumers’ preferred languages, and to halt the use of family members as interpreters support a strong inference of intentional national origin discrimination,” the complaint charges.
Roughly 10 percent of those served by DCF say their primary language is something other than English, though it can vary widely in different regions, according to the complaint. In Lawrence, for example, 20 percent of those servedbyDCF say Spanish is their primary language; in Framingham, nearly 6 percent primarily speak Portuguese.
DCF has previously defended its efforts to offer interpretation services, telling federal officials in 2018 that it was upgrading its technology to more quickly translate documents and that it prioritizes hiring bilingual staff.
In 2019, it also began using a vendor to provide telephonic interpretation services, including to supplement its after-hours hotline, which at the time provided “some bilingual capacity” to communicate with people who speak Spanish and Haitian Creole, according to its most recent language access plan. DCF officials told Commonwealth Magazine in January its telephone interpretation service provides access to 200 languages.
The agency has come under other scrutiny for alleged discrimination. In November, federal officials, including from the US Department of Justice, concluded that DCF had repeatedly discriminated against parents with disabilities, and that it had to reshape its policies so it didn’t rely on “unsupported stereotypes.”
Months later, a state probe into the death of an intellectually disabled and DCF-involved teen found the agency currently had no “policies, standard practices, or training curriculum” about people with disabilities.
Wednesday’s complaint sought to draw a line to those problems, calling DCF a “repeat offender of civil rights.”
It also pointed to federal officials’ 2018 report into a complaint from a Spanish-speaking father, who said DCF did not provide an interpreter or written translations as he sought custody of his son. In response, federal health officials asked DCF to adopt a series of voluntary measures, including rewriting its policies to expressly prohibit using friends or relatives to interpret.
Advocates are now asking federal officials to go beyond issuing recommendations.
“This is not on the individual interpreters or individual case workers, who are truly doing their best. It’s a systemic issue with DCF that they’ve been aware of for years,” said Erin Fowler, an attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights. “What we need to do to hold them accountable is to have a federal investigation and really bring them into compliance with federal law.”