Case: DOJ Investigation of Alabama Foster Care System

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Case Summary

This is an investigation concerning allegations of systemic discrimination in the education of children with emotional and behavioral disabilities within Alabama's foster care system. On October 12, 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reported the findings of its investigation of the State of Alabama, including its Department of Human Resources and the State Department of Education, under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The findings letter focused in particular on …

This is an investigation concerning allegations of systemic discrimination in the education of children with emotional and behavioral disabilities within Alabama's foster care system. On October 12, 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reported the findings of its investigation of the State of Alabama, including its Department of Human Resources and the State Department of Education, under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The findings letter focused in particular on Alabama's educational and therapeutic service provision through Specialized Treatment Centers (STCs), which the DOJ determined discriminated against children with emotional and behavioral disabilities by segregating them unnecessarily and offering unequal educational opportunities. The findings letter also outlined the minimum steps required to remedy these ADA violations.   

The DOJ's investigation concluded that Alabama discriminated against students with emotional and behavioral disabilities in foster care by enrolling them in STCs, which were significantly different from general, integrated education settings. These centers often lacked adequate resources, curricula, and certified staff, leading to insufficient educational services and support. Such segregation denied these students access to common educational facilities and extracurricular opportunities available to their peers, despite their capability to succeed in less restrictive environments with appropriate support.

DOJ retained experts found that Alabama's system failed in multiple areas, including not considering placements in the least restrictive settings, inappropriately using restraints and seclusions, and generally lacking resources to meet the students' educational needs. The experts noted that with proper services, many students placed in STCs could be educated in general education schools, indicating a systemic failure to provide services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.

Furthermore, the experts identified significant gaps in Alabama's oversight and education provision for children in STCs, including a lack of individualized assessments to determine the least restrictive educational setting, inadequate educational and therapeutic services, and insufficient state monitoring for ADA compliance. The experts found the state's policies and practices to contribute to the continued segregation and unequal treatment of disabled students in foster care. The investigation revealed systemic deficiencies in the instruction and resources available, such as a shortage of certified teachers, inadequate curricula, shortened school days, and a failure to tailor instruction to students' needs, underscoring the unequal educational opportunities for students in STCs.

The DOJ emphasized the need for significant reform in Alabama's educational system for disabled children in foster care. It outlined steps for the state to address the violations, including improving policies, practices, and procedures to ensure ADA compliance. This involved providing educational services in the most integrated setting appropriate to the children's needs, enhancing oversight of STCs, and ensuring access to appropriate educational and therapeutic services.

Additionally, the investigation pointed out the lack of coordination between agencies responsible for the care and education of children in foster care, which led to inconsistencies in educational records and a failure to provide necessary support and services. This lack of coordination and oversight exacerbated the challenges faced by disabled students in STCs, further isolating them from their peers in general education settings and limiting their educational opportunities.

To address this issue, the DOJ stressed the importance of collaborative efforts between the state, educational agencies, and treatment centers to rectify the identified deficiencies. It called for a comprehensive approach to reform, including developing policies that prioritize placing students with disabilities in the least restrictive environments, providing adequate resources and support to meet their educational needs, and implementing monitoring mechanisms to ensure compliance with federal laws.

The DOJ concluded the letter by noting that investigators would be in touch to continue monitoring the situation and work through a court-enforceable agreement.

Summary Authors

(2/11/2024)

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Docket

Last updated Aug. 30, 2023, 1:44 p.m.

Docket sheet not available via the Clearinghouse.

Case Details

State / Territory: Alabama

Case Type(s):

Disability Rights

Juvenile Institution

Key Dates

Case Ongoing: Yes

Plaintiffs

Plaintiff Description:

The Department of Justice (DOJ), seeking to rectify systemic inequities and ensure educational integration and equality for students with disabilities in Alabama's foster care system.

Attorney Organizations:

U.S. Dept. of Justice Civil Rights Division

Public Interest Lawyer: Yes

Filed Pro Se: No

Class Action Sought: No

Class Action Outcome: Not sought

Defendants

Alabama Department of Education, State

Case Details

Causes of Action:

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12111 et seq.

Available Documents:

None of the above

Outcome

Prevailing Party: Plaintiff

Nature of Relief:

None yet

Source of Relief:

None yet

Issues

General:

Deinstitutionalization/decarceration

Education

Foster care (benefits, training)

Juveniles

Pattern or Practice

Restraints : physical

Disability and Disability Rights:

Reasonable Modifications

Special education

disability, unspecified

Integrated setting

Least restrictive environment

Developmental disability without intellectual disability

Intellectual/developmental disability, unspecified

Learning disability

Mental Illness, Unspecified

Discrimination-area:

Disparate Treatment

Discrimination-basis:

Disability (inc. reasonable accommodations)

Medical/Mental Health:

Intellectual/Developmental Disability

Intellectual disability/mental illness dual diagnosis

Type of Facility:

Government-run