Report slams DCF for lack of language services
Agency allegedly not providing interpreters to non-English speakers
JUAN ABAD’S son was three months old when he was removed from his mother’s house and placed in a foster home after the boy’s twin was murdered. The boy turned five before Abad – who had no connection to the murder – was finally able to get custody of his son. A major reason for the delays, according to Abad and his attorney, was language.
Abad, a Spanish-speaking man from the Dominican Republic, said through an interpreter that the social worker assigned to him by the Department of Children and Families only spoke English. On supervised visits, when no interpreter was present, Abad was instructed not to speak Spanish to his son – so that an English-speaking DCF worker could understand what was being said and properly supervise the visit. Abad was told he had to request his own interpreter at his son’s medical appointments, and DCF gave him no guidance how to do that. They would not let Abad introduce his older sons to their brother, because the boys did not speak English. Documents were not fully translated, and interpreters at case reviews did not always interpret what every person was saying.
“I used all my resources on this and I fought with all my heart since my son was three months old until he was five years old,” Abad said on a call organized by the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. “They always, throughout the process, they only concentrated in the dark side. I don’t know why they made it so hard for me.”
A new report by the Appleseed Center, which researches social justice issues, finds that the Department of Children and Families has failed dismally in providing language services to families involved with the agency who do not speak English. Although the department is required by federal law to provide language services to people with limited English, the 156-page report, called “Families Torn Apart,” finds that, in many cases, these services are simply not provided.
“DCF will review the report and continue its work to meet the needs of diverse populations, including collaboration with community partners that provide the critical services DCF families depend on to build the skills and competencies to safely and independently parent their children,” a department spokesperson said.
The report was based on public records requests to the DCF and interviews done between February 2019 and October 2020 with 26 people, of whom 20 were attorneys that represent DCF-involved clients, two were social workers who work with DCF-involved clients, and four were policy experts. The average attorney had represented more than 50 DCF-involved clients with limited English proficiency.
According to the report, attorneys and advocates estimated that interpreters are present in just one-quarter of home visits the agency conducts with families who speak limited English. Other times, clients are left communicating through family members or through gestures and broken English. Interpretation services that are provided are often subpar.
According to DCF, the agency gives all new social workers information about translation and interpretation services. In early 2019, the agency introduced telephonic interpretation services, which are available to translate a call into a variety of languages 24/7 via a toll-free number.
According to the report, families regularly do not receive action plans, letters, notices, and agreements in their native language. Whether a document is translated often depends on the social worker assigned to the case, according to interviews cited in the report. Although DCF has acknowledged in its past language access plans the need to translate many of its documents and forms, the report says that work has apparently never been completed.
But the agency questions these contentions. DCF says many of its documents have been translated into the six most common languages, and a social worker can request the translation of other documents. As part of a 2019 overhaul of the foster care review process, where cases are reviewed to determine each child’s status and next steps, the agency installed an automated system where families are sent a notice of the review in their requested language. These meetings can be conducted with a live or telephone interpreter. In fiscal 2020, 97.4 percent of action plans that stemmed from these reviews were written in the family’s primary language.
“As part of the ongoing sweeping reform initiated by the Baker-Polito administration, DCF now provides immediate access to 200 languages through a telephone interpretation service to support non-English speaking families as they engage in foster care review, a critical point in reviewing the Department’s efforts to reunify children with their biological families,” the DCF spokesperson said.
DCF says these services are generally provided in the community, independently of the agency, but the agency does make an effort to connect families with programs in their language.
The study finds that the lack of access to interpreters, documents, and services means parents with limited English are often unable to understand and comply with the department’s processes – and they are then deemed non-compliant and are more likely to be separated from their children. Parents with limited English proficiency are less likely to obtain visitation rights when their children are removed and less likely to be reunited with their children.
The state has a limited number of foster homes where a language other than English is spoken, and the report says when a child is removed from their home, they often lose their connection with their own language, culture, and family. That makes it harder for the child to ultimately return to their family.
“At every stage of the removal process…children of [limited English proficient] parents are more vulnerable to experiencing increased trauma compared to their English-speaking counterparts,” the report finds.
Deb Silva, executive director of the Appleseed Center, said the ultimate result of the language barriers is immense trauma for many children. “The decision to remove a child from their family should never have anything to do with the fact that their parent or parents do not speak English,” Silva said. “Unfortunately, our findings show this is too often not the case.”
The exact number of people who need these services is unclear. The report says approximately 9 percent of the state’s population, and of DCF’s caseload, is not proficient in English. According to DCF figures, 85 percent of adults involved with DCF have English as their primary language, and another 10 percent speak Spanish.
The report finds that language, for DCF, is often an “afterthought.” With the exception of Spanish, there are few DCF caseworkers who speak other languages, such as Khmer, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole, despite large numbers of cases in communities where those languages are spoken.
Darlene Spencer, who worked for 23 years as a DCF social worker and now works for the United Way in New Bedford, said in a call arranged by the Appleseed Center that while she speaks Cape Verdean Creole, her Brockton DCF office had few bilingual workers. Documents often were not translated, and a family calling a hotline for help at 3 a.m. would be unlikely to get translation services. “The burden is placed on a few bilingual workers to fill the needs of all non-English speaking families,” she said, adding that that leads to burnout for those workers.
DCF counters that it currently has 936 bilingual social workers and social worker technicians, who account for 30 percent of people in these positions.
The report recommends that DCF implement more training and protocols for staff regarding language services, hire more bilingual caseworkers and language access coordinators, improve its use of contracted interpreter and telephonic translation services, and more effectively track language access issues.
The issue could ultimately end up in the courts. The Appleseed Center’s report clearly lays out the federal legal requirement that language services be provided, and the specific ways in which DCF is not complying. It is recommending that civil rights organizations and the legal community “examine alternative legal strategies” for protecting families from language-based discrimination at DCF.
The report also lays out some legislative proposals, which state Rep. Adrian Madaro, an East Boston Democrat, and Rep. Joan Meschino, a Hull Democrat, say they will introduce this session.
Madaro is introducing a bill to create uniform standards across state government for what language services must be provided, along with an oversight board. Standards could include requirements for translating documents and websites and for providing an oral interpreter for meetings or other personal interactions.Madaro and Meschino are introducing a bill that would let someone bring a claim in state court against a government agency when policies unintentionally have a disparate impact on a member of a protected class, like families with limited English proficiency. Today, a federal discrimination claim requires a showing that an agency has an intent to discriminate. This would create the ability to file a state-level civil rights claim in a case where there is no clear intent to discriminate, but a policy has discriminatory effects. Families today can seek a ruling through the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which is an administrative agency, but the bill would let them go straight to the courts.
“It’s one thing to have rights. It’s another thing to be able to enforce and access those rights,” Meschino said.