First-of-its-kind law improves college access for students with autism, intellectual disabilities

Julia Landau, director of the Disability Education Justice Initiative at Massachusetts Advocates for Children, was quoted in an Aug. 7 Boston Globe article.

Massachusetts students with autism and significant intellectual disabilities will gain unprecedented access to postsecondary education at state colleges and universities under a law signed late last month by Governor Charlie Baker, lauded by disability rights advocates as the first of its kind in the nation.

More than a decade in the making, the breakthrough legislation will require all of the state’s public college campuses to offer accommodations to young people whose severe disabilities prevent them from earning a standard high school diploma, allowing them to take classes as nondegree-seeking students and join extracurricular activities alongside their peers — experiences that can transform their lives for the better, according to experts.

“It’s truly a joyous and historic milestone, for the state and for the country, because it really will allow people with disabilities to reap the same benefits of higher education,” said Landau. “They have shown that they can exceed societal expectations when they’re given the same opportunities to learn.”

Read more in The Boston Globe.

Report: Restraints and involuntary medication widespread at corrections facility for people with mental illness

A new report by the Disability Law Center suggests staff physically restrained and involuntarily medicated over half of their patients at the Department of Correction’s Bridgewater State Hospital over six months.

The report focused on the facility that houses over 200 men suffering from mental illness, and alleged staff used force to inject sedatives into unwilling patients. The group recounted some of 15 incidents, documented by video, where staff in riot gear held down patients as they were injected with medications, often despite their protests and without an indication that there was an emergency.

“The pattern and practice of violent staff interventions would not be accepted in a DMH [Department of Mental Health]-licensed psychiatric hospital,” wrote authors from the center, which is charged by state courts with monitoring whether reforms are happening at Bridgewater.

Read more at GBH News. Additional coverage in WBUR and CommonWealth Magazine.

New report proposes a different way forward for incarcerated women in Massachusetts

On Monday, Prisoners’ Legal Services’ Women’s Incarceration Conditions and Reentry Project released a new report detailing the traumatic experiences of incarcerated women in Massachusetts and the urgent need to remedy the harm that women face in the carceral system. PLS attorney Sarah Nawab is the primary author of the report, A Different Way Forward: Stories from Incarcerated Women in Massachusetts and Recommendations.

The research is based on interviews with 22 women, either currently or formerly incarcerated in prisons and jails across the state. Of the women interviewed, the vast majority — 19 women — said they had either experienced or witnessed sexual harassment or sexual violence while in custody.

“I think sexual misconduct happens with some regularity, and we have been unable to represent women in a brutality lawsuit like we do for many other people,” said Lizz Matos, PLS executive director, who was quoted in a WBUR article about the report. “And so this report was a response to that problem of not being able to shine a light on an issue and to show, through personal accounts, that this is real and it happens. And it needs a state response.”

Read more at PLS, WBUR, and WGBH.

Jury orders construction company to pay $650,000 to immigrant worker in retaliation case

The Boston Globe reported on the verdict of a case involving an injured worker, represented by Greater Boston Legal Services attorney Audrey Richardson. A federal jury in Boston on Tuesday ruled that a construction company retaliated against the worker by reporting him to immigration officials in an effort to have him deported after he was seriously injured on the job and awarded the man $650,000 in damages.

José Martin Paz Flores had broken his leg after falling off a ladder at work in 2017 and was recovering from surgery when his boss at Tara Construction told him to come to the office because he had some money for him, according to testimony during the week-long trial. But minutes after Paz picked up an envelope containing $500, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested him for living in the country illegally, as his 2-year-old son looked on.

Audrey Richardson, the lawyer for GBLS who represents Paz, said the verdict “made crystal clear that employers who think that they can take advantage of a worker’s undocumented immigration status to undermine their ability to exercise their basic workplace rights, in this case reporting an injury and getting medical care, will face serious consequences.”

Read more in The Boston Globe.

Tragedies fuel child welfare bill, pitched as attempt to improve system

Child welfare advocates, including Massachusetts Law Reform Institute Staff Attorney Susan Elsen and Retired Juvenile Court Judge Jay Blitzman, interim director of the Massachusetts Advocates for Children, scrutinized portions of an omnibus reform bill that in part seeks to rework the advising structure for the state’s Office of the Child Advocate while granting the office more power to intervene in some court cases — proposed legislative language one former judge said creates legal questions. The bill is pinned to high profile cases of child neglect in Massachusetts.

Some child welfare advocacy groups pushed back on the idea, saying the Office of the Child Advocate needs to have access to a wide range of expertise. Elsen said the office cannot oversee the welfare and safety of children in the state all by itself.

“Even if we agree that the composition should be adjusted so it doesn’t have as many executive branch members so as to ensure that the OCA has independence from the executive branch, the OCA does need an advisory committee to consult with, report to, and be accountable to,” Elsen told lawmakers.

Blitzman said Massachusetts has a “history of reacting to tragic cases with sometimes ineffective policy changes.” Blitzman said he and the legislative committee share the same concerns about improving the child welfare system. But he raised questions in his testimony about “how the bill might or might not achieve its goals.” 

Read more in the June 7 articles at MassLive, CommonWealth, and The Eagle Tribune.

State commission takes years to resolve discrimination cases

Tom Murphy, supervising attorney at the Disability Law Center, was quoted in a May 30 WBUR article about a backlog of cases at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which has worsened during the pandemic.

The backlog of old cases under investigation for more than 18 months has climbed more than five-fold since 2019, the agency’s own data shows, reaching 1,400 cases today. And many cases take much, much longer.

The MCAD took 17 years before last year dismissing a retaliation complaint by a fired electrical grid worker. A gender discrimination case against the Massachusetts Port Authority lasted 15 years before it was withdrawn in 2021. And records show that a dozen current cases have been pending for more than a decade.

Some advocates also fear the delays could deter many victims from coming forward at all, missing the chance to catch violations and hold institutions accountable.

“People are just going to give up,” said Murphy, supervising attorney with the Boston-based DLC. And Murphy worried that could encourage people in power to just ignore the rules designed to stop discrimination.

Read more on WBUR.

Lawmakers urged to make prison calls free in wake of SJC ruling

State lawmakers are being urged to make phone calls for prisoners free following a Supreme Judicial Court decision that allows county sheriffs to continue charging inmates and their families for the communications.

Bonnie Tenneriello, a staff attorney for Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts — one of several groups, including the National Consumer Law Center, which argued the case before the SJC — and said the ball is now squarely in the Legislature’s court.

“The prison phone industry is sucking money out of families’ pockets,” Tenneriello said. “These are some of the most low-income and vulnerable families in the state, and disproportionately from communities of color.”

Studies have shown that people who are connected to their families and community during incarceration are far less likely to go back to prison, Tenneriello said.

“We want people to succeed when they get out, and we shouldn’t be putting up barriers between them and their loved ones — it’s just wrong,” she said.

Read more in The Eagle Tribune (May 23).

SafeRent Solutions accused of illegally discriminating against Black and Hispanic rental applicants

Greater Boston Legal Services, the National Consumer Law Center, and law firm Cohen Milstein filed a federal lawsuit on May 25 against SafeRent Solutions, LLC alleging that the national tenant screening provider has been violating the Fair Housing Act and related state laws for years. SafeRent, formerly known as CoreLogic Rental Property Solutions, provides tenant screening services that disproportionately give low scores to Black and Hispanic rental applicants who use federally funded housing vouchers to pay the vast majority of their rent, causing them to be denied housing.  The lawsuit alleges that SafeRent’s algorithm has a disparate impact based on race and source of income, in violation of federal and state laws.

“As stated in the complaint, while SafeRent considers applicants’ credit history, including credit-related information, including non-tenancy debts, and eviction history in calculating SafeRent Scores,” said Todd Kaplan, senior attorney at GBLS, “SafeRent’s algorithm does not consider the financial benefits of housing vouchers in assigning SafeRent Scores. On average over 73% of the monthly rental payment is paid through these vouchers.”

“Racial disparities in credit history and credit scores not only reflect historical racial disparities in wealth, but also perpetuate wealth inequalities through reduced financial opportunities and fewer financial safety nets, which hinder a consumer’s ability to accumulate present or intergenerational wealth through homeownership or other financial investments,” said Ariel Nelson, staff attorney at NCLC.

Read more at NCLC or on Inman, a real estate news source.

Report says DCF needs to incorporate family input into policies

The Massachusetts Law Reform Institute released a report entitled Family Voices: Insights about prevention services from families and youth directly affected by the Massachusetts Child Welfare system, which examines the state’s child welfare system and provides recommendations for improving the system and services provided to families. The report was covered in a CommonWealth Magazine article as well as in a legislative briefing hosted by MLRI and State Representative Adrian Madaro on May 9.

The report looks at the state’s child welfare system through the eyes of the families caught up in it. The authors conducted in-depth interviews with 14 parents and youth and met three times with representatives of Family Matters First, a group of over 100 parents with Department of Children and Families (DCF) involvement. For families, DCF is known not as an agency that provides helpful resources but as one that takes children away.

“Families want service and help without DCF involvement,” said report author Susan Elsen, the child welfare advocate at MLRI.

Elsen said the gap between the mission of DCF – to keep children safely at home with their families whenever possible – and how it is perceived by the families it serves shows the need to bring families into the agency’s policy and planning efforts. “We hope to put the voices of people with lived experience out in the public arena with respect to planning services to keep children safely with their families, to really show how useful and profound their insights are into what’s going to make services effective for keeping children safely with their families,” Elsen said. 

Read more in CommonWealth Magazine. Download the full report here.

Report: Post-moratorium, evictions disproportionately filed in communities of color

A new report from the coalition Homes For All Massachusetts, co-authored by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, finds that after the state’s eviction moratorium ended in October 2020, communities of color were hit harder by new eviction filings than white residents.

Between Oct. 18, 2020 and Oct. 30, 2021, 43 percent of all Massachusetts eviction filings occurred in neighborhoods where most residents identify as people of color, even though those neighborhoods comprise just 32 percent of the state’s rental-housing stock, according to an analysis by Eric Robsky Huntley, a lecturer in MIT’s Department of Urban Science and Planning.

Andrea Park, an attorney at MLRI, suggested the report could shape the rental-assistance portion of a supplemental budget currently being crafted by the Massachusetts Legislature.

In addition, Park noted, “there are pieces of legislation currently pending … things like giving local control for rent stabilization, for transfer fees, for giving tenants the opportunity to purchase their home.”

Read more at WGBH and The Boston Globe. Download the full report here.