Question One: How will you ensure that you have an affirmative and robust Disability Rights Division within your office? And what qualifications would your staff in that division have; including the leader of the team?
Quentin Palfrey (D): As you know, the issues facing the Disability Community touch on a large range of services that the office provides. So, as the former Chief of the Healthcare Division, a number of the issues that fell under our division, I have worked on some of those issues, mental health parity, making sure that everyone had access to healthcare. And so, certainly we’ll want the Healthcare Division to be deeply involved in this set of issues. Historically within the office, the Chief of the Civil Rights Division has been one of the main point people for disability issues, some of the Civil Rights challenges, but also helping to coordinate around the office. And I would certainly call on the Chief of the Civil Rights Division to be one of the primary points of contact with the Disability Community, and coordinate a number of the office’s services. There is also a need for ADA Coordinator within the office who generally would report to the Chief of the Civil Rights Division.
A number of the issues that are most germane to the Disability Community will occur within the education system. And so, certainly we will want to have people within the public protection and advocacy bureau, who are working with the schools, and with the division of elementary and secondary education to make sure that everyone has access to a free and appropriate public education and gets the disability services that are required. We also will need to work within the Consumer Protection Division to make sure that the housing needs for folks in the Disability Community are respected and honored.
And then there are a number of challenges that we have run into historically with State Government agencies often not being part of the solution to challenges facing the disabled community. And so, we will want the set of lawyers who are giving advice and counsel to State Government agencies to receive counseling from our office that really leans in to providing as much access as possible to government services. And then there are a number of issues relating to data that we will want to have at the forefront of our minds as we think about how we can ensure that everyone across the Commonwealth receives the services from the government that they deserve.
So, coordinating all of this is a challenge that you don’t want to silo to one department. But I would want to call on the Chief of the Civil Rights Division to be the primary point of contact and the primary disability coordinator for the office.
Shannon Liss-Riordan (D): I have spent my career fighting for working people. I have been a Civil Rights lawyer. I have led teams of lawyers making national headlines, shaping our laws to help protect some of the most vulnerable people in our society. I think it is critical that the Attorney General’s Office be used as a resource for the people of Massachusetts and I believe that we can set up the office so that there is particular attention paid to the Disability Community. I know that under previous Attorneys General there has been more specific and robust attention paid to the issues affecting the community, and I think it may be worth exploring having a separate division or section within a division that is focused on disability rights as it affects multiple areas. That area would need to be in direct communication with and working closely with the Civil Rights Division, with the Consumer Protection Division, with other divisions that would touch upon the issues that the Attorney General’s Office needs to be fighting for.
I’m very proud to have worked with the Disability Law Center, including in that first lawsuit where we defeated United Airlines. I would consult with the Disability Law Center, as I have throughout my career, as well as other disability rights advocates to ensure that we have the necessary feedback that we need for hiring in the office, so that we can make the most informed hiring decisions, and that we can be sure that the office is addressing the needs of the disabled community through housing. Education. Employment. And other areas that we would work with.
In particular, what I have been the proudest of, through my Civil Rights career is the work that I have done to expand opportunities for people who have not been given those opportunities in the employment arena. I have been proud to fight for disabled people to prove that they are able to perform jobs and should be hired for those jobs. I think there is critical work that we need to do. And I look forward to doing it as the next Attorney General to welcome the disabled community into the office, and to partner with you all to find out what particular issues you want us to be taking onto make sure that the voices of the disabled community are heard.
Question Two: How will your office make sure that state agencies and local education authorities are implementing their services within the constructs of the laws and regulations that govern them to ensure that we have more effective educational and individual support services for people with disabilities?
Shannon Liss-Riordan (D): Throughout my career as a practicing lawyer, I have learned that it is one thing for us to have good, strong laws on the books. And in Massachusetts, we have some of the strongest laws on the books that protect worker rights, that protect consumers. But laws don’t enforce themselves. In order to actually live up to their promise, it is crucial that we have a seasoned, successful lawyer at the helm of the Attorney General’s Office who knows how to hold bad actors accountable and ensure that our laws are enforced. This is what I have been doing throughout my career. I have held some of the most powerful actors accountable, and changed their practices. And that is what I will do as Attorney General.
We have some good laws on the books that protect the disabled from discrimination in housing, in education, in the workplace. But it does not do us much good if these laws are not aggressively enforced. I will make sure that we are in close touch with the Disability Community and are aware of issues that need to be investigated and lawsuits that need to be undertaken. We have a lot of regulations that have not been touched in decades, and I look forward to working with the office to update those regulations, to ensure that they meet today’s needs.
I also have heard as I have been traveling around during this campaign these last 8 months that the A.G.’s office should be accessible to people across Massachusetts. People need to be able to use the office as a resource when they have been victimized by discrimination, when they have been subject to a consumer issue, when they are not receiving the healthcare that is required by our law that now requires parity between mental health and physical healthcare.
We need to make sure that the A.G.’s office is open for people to call. There is someone on the other end of that line to take that call and figure out if that is an area to be investigated or addressed, or to help get people to the help that they need. And we have out posts of the Attorney General’s Office in several parts of the state now, in Worcester, Springfield, New Bedford. I would certainly keep those outposts and consider having more outposts to ensure the A.G.’s office is accessible to everyone in Massachusetts. I would work closely with the disability rights community to ensure that accessibility.
Quentin Palfrey (D): I want to return to the question of how to ensure that state agencies and local educational authorities give the services that people in the Disability Community deserve. I think it is a real challenge, particularly in the area of education. Just sort of stepping back, we are almost 70 years after Brown versus Board of Education, we have schools segregated, and there are huge differences between the educational opportunities that we offer to children in some communities versus other communities. This has a real impact on the parents and students, the parents of students with IEPs.
One of the fundamental aspects of the Massachusetts State Constitution is that the State of Massachusetts has an affirmative obligation to provide a free and appropriate public education for every student. Under the individuals with Disabilities Education Act, you have the opportunity to negotiate an Individualized Education Plan, an IEP, with your individual School District to make sure that your children have a free and appropriate public education. In so many cases we are letting down those families. And a lot of this is tied to educational inequity more broadly.
When school districts do not have the resources to provide enough educational resources to every child, often these conversations around access to services become really problematic. And so, I’m very pleased that the foundation budget was adjusted upward recently by the Legislature, but there is a lot more work to do to make sure that our educational system more broadly is equitable. But in specific, that we then have the resources at the community level, the School District level, to provide every child with an IEP that is appropriate and the kinds of services and the kinds of access to educational resources that every child deserves.
In places like Lawrence and Southbridge that have been in receivership, that is an even greater challenge. And I do not believe that the receivership is the right answer for the City of Boston. I think that the Attorney General is going to need to be involved in these conversations to ensure that the division of elementary and secondary education and individual school districts are giving children the resources that they need to access. And it is one of the reasons why one of the biggest issues in this race has been the question of whether to expand charter schools. I oppose the expansion of charter schools, and one of the main reasons for that is that it often siphons off resources from public schools and leaves them in a position of being unable to provide the services to children with special needs that are required.
And so, really leaning in to make sure that individual school districts are providing the resources to children with special needs is something that I would make a big priority. Now, that, of course, spreads to implementation of mental health parity and to making sure that other parts of our government are being accessible and providing services. That is going to be a major priority, as well.
You need the Attorney General to be an ally and then an advocate for families with special needs. And I think that all too often, the A.G. Office puts on a defensive hat, expanding the defensive strategy, rather than trying to find out what the services are that people need.
Question Three: Data is a key element in understanding the effectiveness of services and programs. Data collection increases transparency and allows targeted improvements. What role can the Attorney General’s Office play in the advancement of data sharing and collection in order to improve transparency and hold disability service providers accountable?
Quentin Palfrey (D): I had the great honor to serve in the White House under President Barack Obama. I was Senior Advisor for Jobs and Competitiveness, but the part of the White House I was in was called the office of science and technology policy. One of the priorities of the office of science and technology policy was to use data as evidence to make sure that we were providing the best possible services across the government, and really be innovative in opening up government data.
And I think that this is particularly important in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and particularly important for the A.G. to take on because of some of the real challenges to transparency with mental health and disability services data. State agencies are really reluctant to provide or even collect some of that information. And that makes it very difficult for us to coordinate care across the State Government. And so, I would love to work with the new Governor in any event, and other parts of the State Government to really put our heads together, to figure out how we can collect mental health data and then provide data relating to the Disability Community, and then provide transparency and access to those data so that we can do a better job of providing services across the government.
I think as the Chief Civil Rights Officer in the Commonwealth, I think the Attorney General’s Office, could play a real leadership role in that enterprise. So, I think that would be something that we would want to take on within this next Administration.
Shannon Liss-Riordan (D): It is really difficult to solve problems that you can’t measure. So, data transparency continues to be a huge problem throughout our State Government in Massachusetts. We saw that very recently during the COVID-19 pandemic when the Baker administration initially refused to collect data on infections and death rates by age, race, sex, and other characteristics. There is much more data that needs to be collected, and I have been particularly focused on the issues of transparency, particularly in our State Government.
I’ve been working with the ACLU for the last couple of years on a project to increase transparency in police departments. We did public records requests to police departments regarding issues such as the racial breakdowns of their interactions with residents and arrest records, and we are about to file suit against a police department that was not responsive to our public records request. So, as Attorney General, I would make it a priority to ensure that public records requests are paid attention to and that there is robust transparency and that we are collecting the types of data that will allow us to measure how we are doing in terms of providing access to people with disabilities, and what ways we can improve that access.
I do know this from my work from my two decades working as a Civil Rights lawyer that the state is not always doing the right thing. The state is not always on the right side of the issues. And I’ve seen times when the state has not been as transparent as we would like it to be. I’ve gone up against the A.G. Office and the state and won. As Attorney General, it will be my constitutional job to keep the state out of trouble, and to make sure that it is fulfilling its mission and its goals and the laws that we have put on the books.
In those situations in which potential litigation that cannot be resolved arises, but I think that the interests of the people are not on the side of defending the state action, I will appoint a special Attorney General to represent the state while I can take the role of the plaintiffs. I will do that when needed to make sure there is transparency and that we are collecting the information we need and sharing it would those who will help guide us toward proper inclusion and accessibility and transparency.