TWO ADVOCACY GROUPS and a mother who speaks limited English have filed a federal civil rights complaint against the Department of Children and Families, seeking to force DCF to improve the language services the agency offers families. 

The complaint comes on the heels of a recent report by the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, which laid the legal grounds for the complaint by determining that, counter to federal law, the state child welfare agency has failed to provide appropriate language services to families involved with the agency who do not speak English.  

Child welfare decisions, including whether to remove a child from their home, often turn not on what is in the best interests of the child, but rather on whether or not the parent speaks English,” attorneys from Lawyers for Civil Rights and the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice wrote in the 32-page complaint, which was filed on behalf of Haitian-Americans United, the Greater Boston Latino Network, and Jane Doe, who is a mother with limited English proficiency. 

The complaint was filed Wednesday with the US Department of Health and Human Services. 

DCF spokesperson Andrea Grossman said the Department of Children and Families will review the complaint, which it received Wednesday. 

According to documents filed alongside the complaint, DCF created a language access plan several years ago, which it has updated. DCF told CommonWealth in January, when the Appleseed report came out, that the department has made progress in improving language access services, and it contested many of the allegations in the report. DCF officials said the agency gives all new social workers information about translation and interpretation services, and in early 2019 the agency introduced telephonic interpretation services. DCF has hired large numbers of bilingual social workers. Officials said the agency makes an effort to connect families with community services in their own language.  

The complaint relies heavily on the Appleseed report. It echoes the report when it argues that DCF’s failure to prioritize language access means parents with limited English are unable to participate in DCF’s processes and cannot easily communicate with DCF workers and advocate for their families. Parents are then deemed non-compliant and are at greater risk of having their children removed from home. It alleges that the failure to provide services like interpreters during meetings or the translation of forms amounts to discrimination against people who do not speak English, which is illegal. 

“This is unconscionable—and a violation of well-established federal law,” the complaint writes. 

According to DCF statistics, around 10 percent of those involved in the child welfare system speak a primary language other than English, with Spanish as the most common language. 

DCF already faced a similar complaint about a lack of interpreter services from a Spanish-speaker in 2018. The US Department of Health and Human Services at that time issued a set of “voluntary compliance measures” that DCF was expected to comply with. But the recent complaint says DCF still failed to provide adequate services to families with limited English.  

In the current complaint, Jane Doe, an unnamed Latina mother of an autistic child from Methuen, alleges that the Lawrence-area DCF office investigated her after her child’s school district alleged child neglect. She says DCF did not provide any oral interpretation in conversations with her, nor did the agency translate a single document sent to her into Spanish. DCF caseworkers spoke to her numerous times in English only, and ultimately substantiated the neglect allegations. The woman said she believes that happened because of her inability to communicate with the caseworkers.  

More broadly, the complaint says, DCF regularly does not provide oral interpreter services during at-home visits. The interpreters it does use are not trained in child welfare and are not always impartial professionals. For example, they may be family members. The agency has cancelled parenting time or not allowed parents to speak to children in their own language because DCF cannot provide an interpreter, and DCF workers want to be able to understand what is being said between the parent and child. 

The complaint says the agency does not translate case-related documents for people who are not English speakers. It requires parents to attend services – like therapy or classes – which may not be available in their native language, leading to delays in parents regaining custody of their children. 

The complaint asks federal officials to suspend any further federal funding of DCF until the agency adopts a comprehensive remediation plan to provide language access to people with limited English. It asks the federal government to then provide monitoring and oversight and institute reporting requirements to ensure DCF complies. It says the plan should require interpreters to be present for all visits or phone calls with people with limited English proficiency, prohibit family members from serving as interpreters, require training for interpreters and caseworkers on impartiality and language issues, mandate the translation of all vital documents, and order community social service agencies to also provide interpretation services.