Monday, November 23, 2020

On the DCF/DOJ settlement on parents with disabilities

The backstory and coming changes are outlined in this WBUR article

I do think there's a big piece missing here, which is that while there are certainly problems with folks at DCF relying on stereotypes of disabilities rather than objective facts (as the story discusses), there's also a problem with DCF not even usually recognizing objective behavior as part of a disability and not being able to appropriately assess what the objective behavior does or doesn't mean. 

I have evaluated a large number of DCF-involved parents who I perceive to have undiagnosed neurodevelopmental or psychiatric disabilities, but who never had access to educators or healthcare professionals who recognized this and provided appropriate support. These folks don't have the privilege that wealthier and whiter disabled folks often have in which they have a diagnosis, have done the work on self-awareness, and can tell anyone who is concerned that they have a diagnosis of X and struggle with Y, but have no major trouble with daily parenting tasks or safety. They instead just present as unusual to the non-clinicians at DCF who are evaluating them, and aren't able to explain why or ask for appropriate accommodations. 

Depending on my role with the family, I may be able to provide a full psych eval and appropriate diagnosis if hired privately or through CPCS, or I may be more limited and only able to attest to observed/reported skills and deficits if hired by DCF to evaluate parenting.

What I often find is patterns of folks at DCF who use particular buzzwords describing a parent and insinuating their child(ren) are at risk because of this. Common ones are "flat affect," "off-topic," "mental health issues," "cognitive issues," and "personality traits." DCF workers are rarely independently licensed clinicians and do not use empirically validated clinical tools to complete full assessments of parents. They do, however, submit affidavits to the court stating that a child should be placed in their custody due to these buzzwords. They are not generally required to substantiate how they determined that these terms apply or to give more specific information as to what exactly they mean. These buzzwords are usually sufficient to seek custody of a child. 

(There are of course plenty of ethical DCF workers who do provide concrete examples of observable behaviors, seek out extensive consultation with collaterals, and only seek custody when they have grounds to do so and a child is truly at risk. I am specifically discussing the instances when alarmist workers take custody unnecessarily and put up barriers to reunification, which is why they ended up with the DOJ civil rights division investigation.) 

This DOJ order doesn't seem like it will alter those situations in which DCF is implying a disability (and often the wrong disability). It seems that alarmist workers are already listing observable behaviors rather than referring to a known or suspected disability; the behaviors are just usually vague, often inaccurately perceived, and don't necessarily have anything to do with a child's safety. The workers know that while "cognitive issues" correctly refers to anything from mild AD/HD through profound intellectual disability, writing it in an affidavit implies significant intellectual disability. While "off-topic" can describe either any anxious parent making sure they cover everything important or a parent who is actively psychotic, most people are going to assume it must have been the latter if someone bothered to mention it as an alleged safety concern. While "personality traits" are something every single person has, anyone working adjacent to clinical settings knows it implies someone has active narcissism/antisocial/related behaviors. 

The hiring of a disability coordinator is not likely going to do much when most of the disability discrimination I observe is toward parents who don't have a diagnosed disability. (The ADA does offer protections to those wrongly perceived to have a disability, but I don't see this working in practice even if DCF does extend disability coordinator services to anyone who wants them. The workers don't generally recognize disability in the sense of being able to be competent when given appropriate accommodations, and parents facing DCF who do not identify as disabled are not likely to want to see a disability coordinator.)

What we need is reforms to the whole way the system operates. The agency is in massive need of anti-bias training. The employees need to look like the communities in which they work. Evaluation by licensed clinicians needs to happen from the start, rather than be something that has to be insisted upon once a family is risking termination of rights. The agency needs to be required to accept evaluations from families' own providers as just as valid as their assessments (and likely more valid, for reasons that should be obvious). They need a major culture shift, in which every person employed there believes the research that all contact with that system is traumatic and destabilizing, and the research that children do better with their families in all except the most extreme circumstances. 

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