This Position Statement addresses the provision of services by state and local Child Protective Services (CPS) agencies to families with a deaf member. This position statement provides an overview of a best practice approach that can be adapted to fit most communities from the initial contact to permanency planning stages.
The National Association of the Deaf recognizes that many state and local CPS agencies are unfamiliar with the unique set of issues that arise when working with families with deaf members. The primary issue facing both parents and children who are deaf usually revolves around the need for equal access to communication throughout the entire process of working with CPS. Specifically, the failure to recognize the language, communication requirements, and cultural needs of the deaf community has great impact on compliance and services provided by CPS. Having policies in place with accountability for CPS workers is critical to ensuring that deaf individuals receive equal treatment by CPS and that children are protected.
Where a member of the family is deaf, CPS is required to provide accessible and effective communication. Federal and state legislation including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 require state and local governments and private providers to ensure equal access to their programs and services, including effective communications and equal opportunities for deaf individuals.
Across the United States, there are numerous reports of CPS social workers making visits on child abuse investigations to families known to have deaf members, and failing to provide communication access. The failure to provide effective communication during visits often leads to complications in the investigation and provision of services to the family members. This failure to provide communication access often continues during the whole process: the police and CPS investigation; the court proceeding; and the family plan implementation. Such failures impede the ability of any CPS staff to meet the needs of families with deaf members, and often renders harm instead of help.
Oftentimes, due to the CPS agency’s failure to comply with the law, families with deaf members are often unable to benefit from the services offered by the agency and unable to complete CPS requirements. For instance, deaf parents may be viewed as in violation of CPS requirements when they are unable to participate in inaccessible parenting classes. As a result, the children of deaf parents are too often removed not because of the parents’ non-compliance, but because of the system’s inaccessibility to those parents.
The problems for deaf children are also often compounded due to the failure to recognize their language, communication requirements, and cultural needs. Too often deaf children are removed from their families and placed in home situations where ASL or their means of communication is not available. This leads to a failure to meet communication and emotional needs and end up causing more harm to the deaf children.
Reports have found that child welfare systems often discriminate against parents with disabilities and their families. In August 2015, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) along with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), published a paper titled: Protecting the Rights of Parents and Prospective Parents with Disabilities: Technical Assistance for State and Local Child Welfare Agencies and Courts under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The paper states the following: “Both the HHS Office for Civil Rights and DOJ Civil Rights Division have received numerous complaints of discrimination from individuals with disabilities involved with the child welfare system, and the frequency of such complaints is rising. In the course of their civil rights enforcement activities, OCR and DOJ have found that child welfare agencies and courts vary in the extent to which they have implemented policies, practices, and procedures to prevent discrimination against parents and prospective parents with disabilities in the child welfare system.” Furthermore, the National Council on Disability (NCD) conducted an in-depth study of the child welfare system and published a 2012 report entitled Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities and Their Children. The NCD report found that parents with disabilities are overly, and often inappropriately, referred to child welfare services, and once involved, are permanently separated at disproportionately high rates. Such reports confirm that serious problems exist in how child welfare agencies handle cases involving family members with disabilities, including those who are deaf.
Recommended Best Practice
Equal access within the child welfare system is a critical issue for the deaf community. To ensure that child welfare systems become accessible to deaf family members, this position statement sets forth best practices. However, it will require a strong collaboration with the deaf community to ensure that such best practices are applied. Quality of service starts with qualified accessible communication but must be done in conjunction with appropriate and comprehensive training of social workers and other personnel involved in the system. As thoroughly documented by HHS and DOJ, there is a serious need for attention to training of CPS staff and contractors, and coordination with local deaf social service agencies.
Quality of services demonstrating positive results are found in models that include deaf and/or culturally competent social workers who understand and are familiar with the needs of all deaf and hard of hearing people. The best model is one in which the staff themselves have fluency in American Sign Language (ASL). These staff should be qualified social workers who are able to work with community resources that provide comprehensive services to deaf individuals and their families.
Federal and state laws require all child protective services personnel to provide families with a deaf member equal access to all programs and services. The first step for all CPS staff in the investigation of a family with a deaf member is to immediately evaluate the language and communication needs of the deaf member and of the other family members as well. Only properly qualified individuals should be allowed to perform this evaluation and such qualifications means being able to assess the family’s language and communication needs, including fluency in ASL. It is not acceptable for a CPS staff person who has worked with deaf individuals but no fluency in ASL to perform language and communication needs assessments. This evaluation will determine the type of communication access needed such as whether interpreters are required and what kind of interpreters need to be provided, including but not limited to: ASL interpreters and Certified Deaf Interpreters.
CPS in each state must develop a clear policy on effective communication and the use of certified/licensed interpreters when interacting with any deaf member of families requiring services from CPS. The deaf family member should be provided with the auxiliary aids and communication accommodations they request to ensure that interviews are conducted appropriately. Moreover, CPS, through appropriately trained staff and contractors, must ensure that any reunification plan that is developed be appropriate and accessible to deaf and hard of hearing parents. CPS staff and contractors should also ensure that deaf and hard of hearing children have equal access to all services provided to them and be placed in foster or group homes where access to communication is appropriate and effective at all times.
For those who require ASL interpreters, the NAD urges all CPS departments to use only certified interpreters and such interpreters must be licensed in those states that have interpreter licensure laws.
The NAD recommends that CPS look to the Los Angeles County Deaf Services Unit within the California Department of Children and Family Services as the model for best practices. Their model is the basis for the recommendations contained in this position statement.
Best Practice Recommendations
- Establish a designated unit or one central office or supervisor to address the needs of deaf people. Addressing the unique needs of deaf and hard of hearing parents or children requires more than just the provision of a qualified sign language interpreter. As discussed in this position statement, to ensure effective communication with any deaf family member in a CPS investigation, CPS shall utilize staff or contractors who are familiar with the communication, language and cultural norms of the deaf community.
- Employ qualified and specially trained ASL-fluent staff and interpreters. The NAD strongly recommends employing ASL fluent staff and/or qualified (and licensed where required by state law) interpreters within the CPS agency. In many communities, having a full time ASL fluent staff and certified staff interpreters may help the agency provide the necessary access on a cost-effective and more readily available basis. Interpreters used by the CPS agency should be trained in and familiar with CPS procedures to reduce unnecessary complications in investigations.
- Bilingual / Bicultural professional staff who are fully trained in all aspects of child abuse. The NAD recommends that an ASL interpreter and/or deaf professional be on the hiring panel. ASL skills should be evaluated for fluency in both receptive and expressive skills. It is critical that staff have a full understanding of Deaf Culture.
- Supervision by a bilingual/bicultural professional. Administrative accountability to a Deputy Chief or the equivalent is necessary to ensure that programs and services are truly accessible to deaf family members. Direct communication with the staff by a knowledgeable supervisor creates a successful and efficient working environment.
- Ensuring workload allows for the necessary time for communication needs. Deaf cases often require more time due to communication needs. A maximum cap of 25 to 27 cases per worker is recommended.
- Unit involvement in the full range of services. Having the same case worker follow the case from beginning to end ensures that communication access is provided appropriately for each families’ needs. This should include the following services but are not limited to: emergency response, investigation, family maintenance, reunification, permanency planning and adoption.
- Availability of assistive technology. Video phones, cell phones and any other equipment needed for both staff and clients to communicate with each other and anyone involved in the case shall be made available.
- Commitment to cooperation with community service providers. CPS workers need to ensure the availability of accessible service providers to assist the family in meeting the requirements from CPS and the court. Examples include fully accessible counseling services and parenting classes.
- Ongoing data collection and research in coordination with community resources. Tracking statistics involving families with deaf members is essential to maintaining funding and assessing the need for additional resources.
- Establish a community based advisory council. This council can include members of both the deaf community and abuse prevention groups. This council can assist with continuing support for the unit from the outside. There are models such as the Advocacy Council for Abused Deaf Children in Los Angeles County, California or the Minnesota Commission of Deaf, Deaf Blind and Hard of Hearing as well as their regional advisory committees.
In conclusion, based on the numerous accounts of non-compliance by child welfare agencies across the United States, it is imperative that state agencies and contracted providers receive training on best practice models for serving families with a deaf member. Ensuring a person’s civil right to equal and effective communication, when encountering the child welfare system, is critical when assessing the health and safety of any family.
1. Sullivan, P. M. & Knutson, J. F. (2000). Maltreatment and disabilities: A population-based epidemiological study. Child Abuse & Neglect, 24(10), 1257-1274.
2. Embry, R. A. & Grossman, F. D. (2006). The Los Angeles response to child abuse and deafness: A social movement theory analysis. American Annals of the Deaf, 151(5), 488-498.
3. Lightfoot, E., Hill, K., & LaLiberte, T. (2010). Disability in the termination of parental rights and other child custody statues. Child Abuse and Neglect, 34, 927-934. Doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2010.07.001
 The term “deaf” is intended to be inclusive of all persons who are deaf, hard of hearing, DeafBlind, late-deafened, or have additional disabilities.
 Communication access may be provided by a variety of means depending on the needs of the family and can include sign language interpreter or other means required by the family for effective communication.
 Protecting the Rights of Parents and Prospective Parents with Disabilities: Technical Assistance for State and Local Child Welfare Agencies and Courts under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. August 2015. http://www.ada.gov/doj_hhs_ta/child_welfare_ta.html.
 Certified Deaf Interpreter: A Deaf Interpreter is a specialist who provides interpreting, translation, and transliteration services in American Sign Language and other visual and tactual communication forms used by individuals who are Deaf, hard-of-hearing, and Deaf-Blind. Deaf Interpreters work most often in tandem with hearing interpreters. The Deaf-Hearing interpreter team ensures that the spoken language message reaches the Deaf consumer in a language or communication form that he or she can understand, and that the Deaf consumer’s message is conveyed successfully in the spoken language.
 The Los Angeles County Deaf Services Unit can be contacted at: Deaf Services Unit 1373 E. Center Court Dr., Covina CA 91724; 626-498-2364 (video phone); 626-938-1800 (voice)