DOJ and Washington Department of Children, Youth and Family Services settle claims of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) violations | USAO-WDWA

Seattle – The Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Family Services (DCYF) will pay $300,000 and make sweeping changes to procedures for providing services to families where a parent or child is deaf or hard of hearing, announced Acting U.S. Attorney Tessa M. Gorman of the Western District of Washington and Acting U.S. Attorney Joseph H. Harrington of the Eastern District of Washington.  The settlement follows an investigation of complaints by two Washington State families about DCYF’s Child Welfare Program (CWP). 

“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 Gorman.  “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.”

“No individual should be denied or delayed access to public services because of a disability,” said Acting United States Attorney Joseph H. Harrington for the Eastern District of Washington.  “Services provided by the State of Washington whether through DCYF or other important areas of civic life must comply with the ADA and its effective communication requirements.  The ADA for over thirty years has strengthened our society and this settlement should serve as a stark reminder of why this landmark legislation is so important.”

According to the settlement agreement, DOJ found evidence that on more than 100 occasions between 2017 and 2019, the Child Welfare Program failed to provide appropriate auxiliary aids or services, including qualified sign language interpreters, for the complainant families.  The communications included high stakes interviews during investigations regarding the possible termination of parental rights and during court-ordered treatments and counseling required for reunification with children.

The investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Offices in both the Western and Eastern Districts of Washington determined that the failure to provide auxiliary aids and services, including qualified interpreters, denied the complainant families equal access to DCYF’s services, programs, and activities.  This failure to provide qualified interpreters in a timely manner, meant that the complainant families were not provided communication that was as effective as the agency’s communications to people without disabilities.  That is the standard set out in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The investigation concluded that complainant families were frequently unable to participate fully in agency investigations, had unequal access to case resolutions options like mediation, and experienced delays in moving through court-ordered services such as counseling and drug treatment.  DCYF employees also improperly relied on ineffective means of communication such as the use of note-writing for the parents whose primary language was ASL, or the use of family members to interpret instead of qualified interpreters.  There was also evidence that the parents’ status as individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing and their legitimate requests for qualified interpreters resulted in caseworkers having a negative view about the willingness of such parents to cooperate in DCYF’s investigation.

DOJ concluded that the delays and barriers to access to DCYF’s services, including resolution of investigations and visitations with their children, caused significant emotional distress to the complainant parents and their children.  The investigation also reflected that these problems were likely not limited to the complainant parents but reflected a more widespread inability to communicate effectively with families with members who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Under the terms of the settlement DCYF Child Welfare Program must devise and implement, with input by the U.S. Attorney’s Offices, new policies, practices, and procedures on how it will communicate effectively with constituents who have communication disabilities, including individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.  The new communications policies will follow the ADA requirements and will ensure there are a variety of resources, including appropriate auxiliary aids and services, for caseworkers to use in communicating with families.  The new policy will prohibit the use of interpreters who are family members and children, as required by the ADA. 

The settlement agreement also calls for DCYF to enter or maintain sufficient contractual arrangements across all the counties of Washington State to meet the expected needs for qualified interpreters.  Video remote interpreting may be used following the ADA’s standards and requirements.

The settlement agreement further calls for publicizing the new communications plan, appointing an ADA coordinator, training employees on the new plan and ADA requirements, and keeping a log of when auxiliary aids and services, including interpreter services, are used.  The log will be part of the information provided to the U.S. Attorney’s Offices to ensure DCYF remains in compliance with the settlement agreement.

Under the terms of the settlement, the $300,000 will be divided between the complainants in Western and Eastern Washington.  Some of the money will be held in trust for two of the children whose reunification with their parents was delayed by a repeated lack of interpreters. 

The Department of Children, Youth and Families cooperated fully in the investigation.

The investigation was conducted by Assistant United States Attorney Christina Fogg who serves as the Civil Rights Program Coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Western District of Washington, and Assistant United States Attorney Joseph Derrig of the Eastern District of Washington. 

The U.S. Attorney’s Offices (in coordination with the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice) vigorously enforce federal civil rights laws throughout Washington.  These laws prohibit discrimination, protect the constitutional rights of residents, and affirm equal opportunity for all.  Find more information on our civil rights program here.

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