In a first-of-its-kind settlement, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services say that a state has agreed to change its ways after repeatedly discriminating against parents with disabilities.

Under the agreement reached in late November, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families “will not base decisions about removal of a child on stereotypes or generalizations about persons with disabilities, or on a parent’s disability, diagnosis or intelligence measures (e.g., IQ scores) alone.”

Rather, the state will make decisions based on an individualized assessment. Even in cases where a child is removed from a parent with a disability, the parent should be allowed to participate in services provided by the state agency “unless the parent poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others,” the document indicates.

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The settlement, which federal officials are calling a “landmark agreement,” is the Justice Department’s first to address disability discrimination by a state child welfare agency and it could have national implications.

“We believe this agreement will not only help thousands of families in Massachusetts, but also will provide a roadmap for child welfare agencies nationwide on how to treat parents with disabilities with the fairness, dignity and respect that they deserve,” said Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

The move comes five years after the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services determined that the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families discriminated against a mother with intellectual disability when her newborn was removed from her and officials sought to terminate her parental rights based on assumptions about her capabilities.

Federal officials said they subsequently received numerous similar complaints against the Massachusetts agency from parents with physical, hearing, developmental and other types of disabilities. In addition, families alleged that the state denied requests for reasonable modifications and failed to provide equal access to programs and services. The Justice Department said that it investigated and substantiated many of the claims.

“The stakes are never higher than when a parent faces the possibility of losing a child,” Dreiband said. “While child welfare agencies are faced with challenging and weighty decisions on a daily basis, they must always strive to ensure that no child is removed from a parent on the basis of unsupported stereotypes, discriminatory attitudes or other unlawful reasons. This agreement will ensure that parents with disabilities are treated as individuals, and that they receive the supports and services they need to have an equal opportunity to retain or regain custody of their children.”

The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families committed in the agreement to policy changes, appointing coordinators to oversee compliance with disability rights laws, staff training on policies and procedures and reporting to federal officials about its handling of requests for accommodation and complaints.

However, the state agency maintains in the document that it “denies any and all allegations of discrimination and any and all allegations that DCF violated the law.”

The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families indicated that the current governor has been “intentionally rebuilding” the agency “through a series of major reforms.”

“DCF remains committed to constantly improving the way it serves children and families across the Commonwealth, including families protected by the ADA,” a spokesperson for the agency said.

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