WORCESTER — Growing up Latino in Massachusetts carries a greater risk of entering the foster system than anywhere else in the nation, and for those who end up in foster homes — as well as those who are the subject of child welfare investigations — the consequences can be devastating.
For children, living in foster care is associated with an increased risk of entering the criminal justice system and worse educational outcomes, state and national studies show. Allegations of child mistreatment can also follow parents for years, hurting their ability to get jobs long after their Department of Children and Families cases close.
“Once the system gets a hold of us, it never lets go,” said Nelly Medina, herself a foster child and founder of Free Worcester, a nonprofit focused on educational justice and civil rights for disadvantaged children, including those in the Latino community.
In Massachusetts, Latinos comprise just 20 percent of all children 17 and younger, but 34 percent of children in foster care, according to data from the US Census and the DCF. Their overrepresentation in the foster system is greater by far than any other state’s, according to an analysis of 2021 data by Child Trends, a national nonprofit researching issues affecting children.
A more culturally sensitive child mistreatment reporting system and more resources for people in poverty would help stem the flow of Latino children into the child welfare system, say child advocates and activists from the Latino community. Also needed, they said, is more cultural awareness throughout the system.
Cultural biases and language barriers cause Latino families to face added scrutiny, advocates for Latino communities and lawyers with Spanish-speaking clients said, and make navigating the child welfare system, with nothing less than the fate of children at stake, even more confusing.
For parents, just being investigated by DCF can be traumatic, even when they’ve done nothing wrong.
Amparo Rendero, a Salvadoran immigrant living in Worcester, encountered DCF almost a decade ago when her daughter, then in second grade, told a teacher she was afraid of being punished at home after getting in trouble at school. DCF’s investigation included a search of Rendero’s refrigerator and an interview with her older daughter. DCF found no evidence of abuse, but the experience permanently changed Rendero.
“I was afraid to punish my daughter, to correct her, because I thought that something could happen,” said Rendero, who works with Movimiento Cosecha, an immigrant advocacy group, through an interpreter. “I feel I failed as a mother.”
One out of every 20 Latino children in Massachusetts — almost 14,000 children — is the subject of an active DCF case, according to 2022 data, the most recent available. Latino children are slightly more likely than Black children, and more than twice as likely as white children, to have an open case with DCF.
DCF officials insist workers aren’t biased, and point to data showing that after being referred to DCF, Latino families are no more likely to be cited for mistreating a child than any other demographic group.
A root cause of Latino overrepresentation in the child welfare system, they said, is disproportionate reporting. State law requires professionals such as teachers, doctors, and child-care providers to report suspected neglect and abuse, and they can face fines, and even jail, if they don’t. Referrals from these so-called mandated reporters account for about 80 percent of the child maltreatment allegations, or 51A reports, DCF receives. Once a 51A is filed, DCF is required to investigate, but too often DCF finds the conditions being reported are the result of poverty, not bad parenting, agency officials said.
“Maybe you’re concerned about food, clean clothes,” said Mary McGeown, undersecretary for the Office of Health and Human Services. “There are lots of responses that can be put into place long before you contact the Department of Children and Families.”
About 73 percent of DCF’s cases are neglect investigations, and lack of housing, child care, healthy food, or employment can all be interpreted as negligence, said Rachel Gwaltney, executive director of Children’s League of Massachusetts. No single demographic group in Massachusetts has a higher poverty rate than Latinos, according to the census. They also have the state’s lowest median household income.
“We need to see more services for families that are culturally responsive,” Gwaltney said.
Yet supports that exist can themselves lead families to DCF.
“When you go and ask for help, any type of resources, all these places, are all mandated reporters,” said Tatiana Rodriguez, executive director of Family Matters First and a parent advocate who partners with the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. “They’re trained to overreport.”
Rodriguez, a former foster child herself, calls it racism: “A Hispanic family cannot get away with what a white family can get away with, period.”
Latino parents who aren’t fluent in English face challenges throughout the child welfare system. Families whose DCF cases don’t end up in court typically don’t receive court-appointed legal representation. If they can’t afford their own lawyer, they can face the child welfare system without a guide. Key documents aren’t always provided in Spanish quickly, and children are placed with foster families that aren’t from the same culture. Translated documents alone may not even help, if no one in the family can read or fully grasp the guidance.
“A lot of times they’re signing on to things out of fear because they don’t want to disclose that they don’t understand,” Medina said.
Norma Mercedes, a lawyer in Lowell, said she has at times had trouble quickly getting Spanish translations of important DCF documents.
DCF does provide interpretation and translation services, officials said, though it does not track how quickly that third-party vendor translates documents.
Mercedes has also seen how Latino cultural norms can lead to different treatment. When a Latino social worker assigned to a Latino client took a leave of absence, the replacement, who was white, misinterpreted the woman’s behavior as anger, and recommended anger management courses.
When the original case worker returned, the client’s alleged anger issues stopped coming up.
DCF requires cultural humility and sensitivity courses for all social workers, said Ryan FitzGerald, DCF’s chief of staff.
“Issues of identity and diversity are central to children’s welfare, and it’s deeply grounded in our work,” he said.
Just 16 percent of DCF’s administrators and professionals are Latino, though, according to the state’s employee diversity dashboard.
Rendero, the immigrant advocate from Worcester, noted physical discipline is more acceptable in some parts of South and Central America, including areas of her birth nation, El Salvador. That puts DCF in a difficult position. The agency considers injuries to a child that include swelling or a bruise abuse.
“In our country, when you are disciplining your child you can hit your child,” Rendero said. “When we realize we make these mistakes, we are already in the DCF system.”
She doesn’t condone hitting children, Rendero said, but immigrant families would benefit from education on American parenting standards. Depending on the circumstances, DCF also should be willing to issue warnings when an immigrant parent is facing a first accusation of child abuse.
Maritza Cruz, another Salvadoran immigrant in Worcester, drew DCF’s attention six years ago after her son, then 13, became physically aggressive toward her, she said. She said she hit him in self defense, scratching his face. The next day, school staff contacted DCF.
She lost her son for three months, and her 5-year-old daughter for a year.
“It’s like they have taken a limb out of my body,” the 42-year-old said through an interpreter. “They took my children away.”
At times, she said, she couldn’t understand case workers or investigators who didn’t speak Spanish, and felt ignored because she struggles with English. She lost her job at a cucumber packing company because court hearings and appointments forced her to miss work. Supervised visits sometimes ended with her daughter in tears. The girl, now 11, is still traumatized.
“The department thinks they’re helping a child and doing some good for a child,” she said, “but in the case of my child, they harmed her.”