Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Children with Disabilities in the Child Welfare System

Serving the Deaf Community in Los Angeles County: The DCFS Deaf Unit


Veronica Tran is Children’s Social Worker with the Deaf Services Unit, County of Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services, Covina, California.

The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) mission is to protect children from being physically and/or emotionally abused by their families, and to provide social service to these children and their families. Due to the large and diverse population that the DCFS serves, the department saw a need to establish 20 Alternative and Specialized Service units. The purpose of these specialized units is to provide services targeting the county’s unique populations. The Deaf Unit is one such Alternative and Specialized Service Unit that was created to serve the Deaf community specifically; in addition, American Sign Language (ASL) specialists work with the Deaf Unit.

The need to establish the Deaf Unit came after realizing that Deaf families were not receiving adequate services from the DCFS in relation to their specialized needs. Social workers struggled with Deaf clients during assessments because they were not competent using ASL and lacked cultural awareness of the Deaf community. In addition, providing ongoing and regular services to Deaf clients was difficult and many problems arose. For example, often social workers had to ask other family members or friends to interpret during the initial assessment; this made the family vulnerable and opened the door to errors.

Seeking to solve the communication dilemma, the DCFS assigned ASL interpreters to work with social workers. However, this created a barrier between social workers and Deaf families given that social workers were unfamiliar with Deaf cultural norms. Miscommunication and lack of cultural awareness led social workers to misinterpret a family’s situation, which sometimes resulted in unnecessary detention of children. These communication problems were recognized by a group of professionals from county mental health agencies, educational programs, and judges from the Children’s Superior Court. Several of these professionals established the Advocacy Council for Abused Deaf Children (ACADC), which sought to address the communication concerns. After researching the work of the DCFS and its handling of Deaf clients, the council found that not only were Deaf children at higher risk for child abuse and/or neglect, but Deaf children were also being overlooked. The council also found that equal access to services was provided for most children with disabilities, but not for children with deafness as their disability. The DCFS acknowledged inconsistencies in service to clients with Deaf children and after negotiations with ACADC agreed to establish a Deaf Unit. Workers now are required to refer cases involving Deaf family members to the Deaf Unit.

Today after 12 years of working exclusively with Deaf clients the Deaf Unit has made tremendous positive impacts in the lives of Deaf children and families. The Deaf Unit is designed to serve Deaf children and their hearing siblings, Deaf parents with hearing children, hearing parents with Deaf children, and other family configurations consisting of at least one Deaf client. It provides a full range of services from emergency response to permanency planning, and is staffed by eight Deaf social workers and two hearing social workers who are fluent in ASL. These social workers posses the ability to communicate well with Deaf clients and have the cultural awareness needed to work with this specialized population. Over time there has been an increase in the number of cases referred to the Deaf Unit, indicating that hearing workers recognize the importance of cultural and linguistic compatibility in the worker-client relationship. Families have expressed appreciation that the child welfare services they receive are delivered by a social worker that they understand and with whom they are able to communicate. The workers in the Deaf Unit have been able to successfully connect families to the appropriate resources, workers frequently correct mistakes (such as inappropriate removal of children) which were based on communication errors, and the workers in this unit have worked to develop needed services within the community to better meet the needs of Deaf children and families.

An unintended benefit of the Deaf Unit is that Deaf social workers can be role models for Deaf children and families. Many Deaf clients are positively impacted when they meet and learn from Deaf professionals. Such role modeling provides Deaf clients an important sense of hope, which communicates that Deaf people, like themselves, can be important and successful members of society.

The Deaf Unit maintains a close and ongoing collaboration with outside agencies through meetings with providers, interagency trainings, and quarterly meetings with the ACADC. Agencies the Deaf Unit collaborates with include: Awakening Drug and Alcohol Abuse Program for the Deaf, Catholic Big Brother and Little Sister mentor program for the Deaf, Five Acres mental health services for the Deaf, St. John’s Mental Health program for the Deaf, Child Share Foster Home for the Deaf, and so on forth. Through tight collaboration, the Deaf Unit has the ability to ensure that the Deaf families receive equal access and quality services.