Hearing-impaired parents from at least two Washington state families were denied their right to have sign language interpreters available to them in their fights to keep the state from taking away their kids, according to a settlement agreement announced Monday between the federal government and the state.
Under the terms of the settlement – in which the state Department of Children, Youth and Family Services did not admit violating the parents’ rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act but acknowledged “mistakes and gaps” in services – the state agreed to take specific steps to properly protect the rights of those with hearing disabilities in the future
Meanwhile, the state must compensate the parents for being denied their rights, with some of the $300,000 the state must pay being put aside for the children when they grow up.
Justice Department investigators found evidence that, between 2017 and 2019, the state child welfare agency failed to provide auxiliary aids or services to the complaining families more than 100 times.
When such services were not available, the parents were left to rely on the notes that the social workers took for them, which U.S. attorneys found inefficient and unacceptable in such high-stakes meetings. As a result, the government concluded that the parents were not given the same opportunity to defend themselves as people without a hearing disability – the essence of discrimination under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
“At every step, communication is key to the relationship between a family facing challenges and social workers who are trying to protect and serve children,” said acting U.S. Attorney Tessa Gorman of the Western District of Washington. “It is critical whether in a home assessment, a supervised visit or a therapeutic service, that a parent who is deaf or hard of hearing be able to understand and communicate with a caseworker. DCYF has agreed to a path forward that will provide these critical services.”
The terms of the settlement announced Monday closely resemble those involved in a November settlement with Massachusetts, although the facts of the underlying cases differ.
The Justice Department labeled the Massachusetts settlement a “landmark” because it was the first time it had ever settled a disability discrimination case with a state child welfare agency.
The Justice Department suggested at the time that more such settlements were in the pipeline, and Monday’s announcement backs that up.
The Massachusetts plaintiff was a woman with a mild intellectual disability whose child was taken from her by the state without the child welfare agency assessing her ability as an individual to care for the child. In following up that complaint, federal investigators said they found many similar instances in which intellectually disabled people were denied equal rights.
Under the Washington agreement, as in the Massachusetts case, the state agreed to do a better job training its workers to understand and protect the rights of disabled people.
As a part of the settlement, the state agency will also appoint an Americans With Disabilities Act coordinator to streamline the process for families to request and receive services for the deaf and hard of hearing. The U.S. attorney’s office will monitor the agency’s compliance efforts.
A senior official at the state’s family services agency said the agency cooperated with the investigation as soon as it learned of the complaints and acknowledged “mistakes and gaps” in services. It is now focused on “how we can serve families better,” Frank Orway, department chief of staff, said in a statement. “This work is very important to us. It reflects who we are as an agency.”