MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama’s child-welfare system wrongly denied services to people who couldn’t speak proficient English and has agreed to make changes, the Department of Health and Human Services said Wednesday.
The civil rights branch of the federal agency said in a statement it had reviewed a Justice Department complaint accusing the state of discriminating against a Guatemalan man who was trying to get custody of his daughter from foster care after his wife’s death.
The state didn’t do enough to accommodate the needs of the man, who spoke a Mayan language, the department said, and a subsequent investigation found the state consistently failed to help Latino people with limited English proficiency.
The failure had the effect of denying access to programs on the basis of national origin, which is prohibited by law, said the agency.
“Separating families can lead to irreversible loss of parental rights and trauma to children. It is critical that child welfare agencies administer their programs in accordance with laws designed to protect the rights of all family members to ensure family unity when possible, without regard to their race, color or national origin,” said Roger Severino, director of the civil rights office, in a statement.
Under a settlement, the state agreed to provide free, timely language assistance to people with limited English capabilities. It also agreed to update its policies.
In a statement, the Alabama Department of Human Resources said resolving the case involved an “extremely lengthy process” that dated back years. The state has had language assistance available in all counties for more than 15 years and spent nearly $1 million on translation services over the past two years, the statement said.
The settlement said Health and Human Services has been investigating the Alabama Department of Human Resources since 2003, when workers removed a girl from the custody of her mother, a Guatemalan woman, and failed to provide the mother with proper language assistance while refusing to reunite the family and limiting visitation rights.
A report about another case, completed in 2010, resulted in the federal agency reviewing practices in other Alabama counties and finding problems, the agreement said.
Human Resources said the federal agency didn’t issue any guidance after the 2010 report until January, but the state launched several programs on its own to help people with limited ability in English.