Settlement Reached: Recent Agreement Strengthens Rights of People in Recovery and Involved in Child Welfare Services

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The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently entered into a voluntary resolution agreement with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania through its Department of Human Services (PA DHS), protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, including persons in recovery from substance use disorder, based on Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Section 504 covers programs and activities that are conducted by HHS or receiving Federal financial assistance from HHS and protects qualified individuals with disabilities from discrimination on the basis of disability in the provision of benefits and services. Title II of the ADA applies to the services, programs, and activities of all state and local governments, including child welfare agencies and court systems.

The agreement resolves a complaint against a county-operated child welfare agency overseen by PA DHS that denied an individual the opportunity to apply to be a foster parent because she receives medication for the treatment of substance use disorder, a violation of her rights under federal disability laws. This settlement is an example of ongoing efforts by OCR to ensure that child welfare entities meet their obligation to comply with federal civil rights requirements.

“State, county, and local child welfare organizations must ensure that they have policies and practices in place that do not limit opportunities for people with disabilities to fully participate in their programs, including individuals in recovery from a substance use disorder,” said OCR Director Melanie Fontes Rainer.

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During its investigation, OCR identified systemic concerns regarding the PA DHS’s oversight of county child welfare agencies’ Section 504 and Title II policies, practices, and procedures to prevent discrimination against individuals with disabilities in Pennsylvania’s child welfare system, which is administered by county agencies but licensed and overseen by PA DHS. Such policies should ensure that individuals should not be discouraged from applying or denied participation in a PA DHS-licensed agency program based on unfounded discriminatory assumptions that medications for substance use disorder limits their ability to be effective foster parents. Foster parents are critical to an effective child welfare system and promoting opportunities for qualified individuals to participate in federally funded programs serves an important public interest.

Under this comprehensive agreement, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services will take the following corrective actions to ensure it and county partners meet all civil rights requirements:

  • Either directly, or through its program offices, refrain from discrimination against individuals with disabilities, including individuals in treatment for opioid use disorder;
  • Designate a Section 504 and Title II Coordinator;
  • Develop and adopt a non-discrimination policy; specifically one that emphasizes that individuals with a substance use disorder, including persons receiving medications for substance use disorders, are entitled to the protections of Section 504 and Title II in specific circumstances;
  • Develop and adopt a procedure for individuals to file complaints;
  • Track and review requests by individuals for reasonable accommodations;
  • Develop and provide annual mandatory training regarding compliance with Federal civil rights laws, including Section 504 and Title II of the ADA, and working with participants with disabilities, including those in recovery from a substance use disorder;
  • Specifically address and seek to resolve the complainant’s allegations with respect to being denied the opportunity to participate in the foster care program;
  • OCR will monitor PA DHS’s compliance with federal laws and be available to provide technical assistance.
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These steps will help ensure that county-operated Children and Youth Services agencies are not imposing eligibility requirements that screen out individuals with disabilities because of treatment for substance use disorder.

“Pennsylvania is committed to offering services and supports available to our residents in an accessible manner that is free of discrimination. As the state agency overseeing our county-operated child welfare agencies, we must be sure we have clear policies and expectations to ensure our partners act in line with these values,” said PA DHS Secretary Val Arkoosh. “We appreciate the partnership and support from HHS to make our shared goals a reality.”

Child welfare professionals are encouraged to review HHS’ five-part online video series, “Civil Rights Protections for Individuals in Recovery from an Opioid Use Disorder.”  The series provides guidance on applying federal disability rights laws to child welfare programs and activities, discusses protections that apply to some individuals in recovery from an opioid use disorder, and provides an overview of medication-assisted treatment and misconceptions about medication-assisted treatment. A link to this guidance material can be found here: Medication-Assisted Treatment | National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare (NCSACW) (

OCR hopes that its efforts will reduce complaints from individuals in recovery who have experienced discrimination in the child welfare system based on their receipt of medications for opioid use disorder or participation in medication-assisted treatment programs.

For more information about this topic, please visit our website at

OCR’s Civil Rights webpage describes OCR’s commitment to improving access to child welfare programs and activities.

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If you believe that you or someone else has been discriminated against because of race, color, national origin, disability, age, sex, or religion in programs or activities that HHS directly operates or to which HHS provides federal financial assistance, you may file a complaint with the HHS Office for Civil Rights at:

Pennsylvanians may contact the Pennsylvania Office of Children, Youth and Families (PA OCYF) Section 504/ADA Coordinator at to file a grievance, request assistance, or to be connected with your county’s HHS grievance procedure.

To read the full Voluntary Resolution Agreement text, please visit: Voluntary Resolution Agreement Between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Pennsylvania Department |

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