response to charges that the state Department of Social Services (DSS)
is discriminating against black-owned social service providers, DSS
Commissioner Angelo McClain vowed to instill a sense of fair play
throughout the agency and insisted that those subcontractors engaging
in discriminatory practices would have their state contracts terminated.
By the same token, McClain said that he would work with black-owned companies to insure that they meet all state standards and licensing requirements and provide further business training to enable those firms to diversify their revenue streams and not depend solely on the DSS.
McClain has already met with members of the Black Mental Health Alliance who have claimed they are still not receiving a fair share of the multimillion-dollar referral business that helps troubled families.
“I have sent a clear message,” McClain said, “that the department would expect companies doing business with the DSS not to discriminate,” and if any are found doing so, they would be in “violation of their contracts.”
But for some members of the Black Mental Health Alliance, that message has yet to trickle down.
In the three-month period that ended in June, for instance, the Osiris Group received a total of eight referrals, a small percentage of the estimated 1,200 referrals a month made under the DSS “Family Networks” service in the Greater Boston area.
The small percentage is particular troublesome given DSS estimates that roughly 50 percent of their clients who need services are African American and Latino families, and the agency’s stated goal of developing community-based organizations and increasing their capacities.
Larry Higginbottom, a member of the Black Mental Health Alliance and founder of the Osiris Group, said that when he and other group members talked with McClain about their perceptions that they are being “systematically discriminated against,” the commissioner agreed to investigate and put an end to any discriminatory practices.
“He was very responsive,” Higginbottom said.
At issue is the DSS referral system. As it is now, the bulk of the referrals are made through “lead agencies” that have contracts with DSS. Those agencies — including The Home for Little Wanderers, Dimock Community Health Center, Justice Resource Institute, and Health & Education Services — act as brokers between families in need and those able to provide services.
But what Higginbottom and other black family service providers have learned is that an “old boy” network exists in which the lead agencies give more work to companies with which they have had prior relationships — regardless of those company’s ability to provide culturally competent or clinically successful work.
“This deliberate discriminatory practice needs to stop,” Higginbottom told the Banner in a story published Sept. 13. “The referrals should be based on quality, quality, quality. That is all that we are asking. There should be no favoritism, no quotas, no handcuffs on our ability to do as much business as we can handle.”
In response to that Banner story, McClain disputed claims made by minority social workers that they were being unfairly excluded from the agency’s vendor referral list.
In the letter, dated Sept. 18, the recently appointed McClain wrote that his office has “acted in good faith” with the Black Mental Health Alliance “and will continue to do so.”
As evidence of that “good faith,” McClain wrote that in fiscal year 2006, DSS purchased nearly $2 million in services from two members of the Black Mental Health Alliance — $1,513,333 from The Osiris Group and another $423,480 from Pyramid Builders Association.
“In fact, DSS contracts for [the two groups] … together were 27 percent of the total dollars expended statewide for their model of service, with 39 other providers sharing the remaining 73 percent,” McClain explained in the letter. “Clearly, these numbers dispel the claim that they are not receiving any business from DSS.”
In an interview with the Banner this week, McClain conceded that part of the business involves networking, and while black-owned firms say they are not getting their fair share, McClain said that he hears the same thing from some white-owned companies as well.
McClain said he has arranged for networking sessions between providers and lead agencies in order to build up the relationships in the field.
Complaints about the DSS referral system are nothing new.
Higginbottom said he had met with former DSS Commissioner Harry Spence for the last four years and explained what he described as the agency’s “unfair and biased” distribution system.
Dr. Omar Reid, president of the Black Mental Health Alliance, said his group was unaware of the discriminatory practices until several white social workers informed him of high-level discussions in which they were told by senior officials at nonprofit agencies that do business with DSS not to refer clients to the black mental health providers.
“We initially thought that we weren’t receiving any business because we simply had to wait our turn,” Reid told the Banner. “But then we find out that white social workers were actually being told not to make referrals to us — even when they thought that we were more appropriate. It was shocking to us and even more shocking to the white social workers who told us about it. They were outraged.”
Two years ago, for instance, DSS made about 1,200 referrals a month in the Greater Boston area. Of those referrals, according to Reid, only about “one or two per month” were made to black mental health providers. Since then, Reid estimates the percentage to be less than 1 percent.
The number of referrals from DSS authorized lead agencies haven’t changed much over the last several years. During the second quarter of 2007, Higginbottom said he received two referrals from The Home for Little Wanderers in Boston; three from Wayside Youth & Family Support Network in Framingham and Arlington; and one from The Guidance Center Inc. in Cambridge.