[lg policy] Washington DC: District officials violating law on language access, lawsuit says
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Fri Oct 9 18:38:29 UTC 2015
District officials violating law on language access, lawsuit says
By Antonio Olivo October 7
With an increasing number of clients who speak little or no English,
District caseworkers for food stamps and other types of aid repeatedly
violate a 2004 local law mandating access to interpreters, a lawsuit filed
The lawsuit says staffers with the Department of Human Services have
unlawfully discriminated against low-income residents seeking help,
rebuffing them when those people have asked for an interpreter or denying
benefits when misunderstood applications have been turned in with errors.
[Language immersion programs growing in D.C., but only west of the river]
“This is the worst-performing agency in the District with respect to
language access, even though it’s been the law for a decade,” said Elliot
Mincberg, an attorney with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil
Rights and Urban Affairs, which prepared the lawsuit.
“DHS, of course, deals with the most vulnerable population in the city, so
we felt very strongly that there needs to be court action,” Mincberg said.
DHS officials declined to comment.
The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, cites a 2014 report by the
District’s Office of Human Rights that found that DHS failed to translate
documents or provide clients with interpreters in about half of its
encounters with city residents.
[New federal guidelines highlight civil rights of English-language learners]
That report — an annual measure of compliance with the District’s 2004
Language Access Act on the part of every city agency — gave the DHS a score
of zero out of 5 for the quality of its language-access services in fiscal
The lawsuit names as plaintiffs two Latin American immigrant women who,
advocates say, represent a larger disconnect between DHS caseworkers and
the roughly 20,000 Hispanics served by the agency.
In the complaint, Minerva Nolasco alleges that she was suddenly denied
prenatal care while seven months pregnant after her health insurance,
through the District’s Alliance program, was mistakenly cancelled.
Nolasco, who was experiencing pain in her abdomen, asked for a Spanish
speaker during several DHS visits but was repeatedly denied, the lawsuit
alleges. She eventually learned, in a letter written half in Spanish and
half in English, that her insurance had been canceled because her income
was determined to be too high.
That mistake was finally discovered during a fourth visit, when a
Spanish-speaking caseworker realized the error. Nolasco was reinstated into
the Alliance program just before her son was born last month, according to
In the second case, Maria Amaya Torres allegedly went one month without
food stamps for her two children, then had the benefits erroneously
reinstated at less than half the original amount after a similar bout of
miscommunication, the lawsuit alleges.
In that case, Amaya stood in a DHS line to recertify her food-stamp
benefits and observed a woman ahead of her receiving instructions from a
caseworker through a 6-year-old child who was with the woman and had to
step in as her Spanish interpreter.
When it was her turn, Amaya asked for an interpreter through the District’s
“LanguageLine,” a telephone-based service, but was denied access, the
After eventually learning that her benefits had erroneously been shaved to
$87 per month, she contacted an attorney who helped her get back to the
$220 per month she had been receiving.
Allison Miles-Lee, supervising attorney for Bread for the City, a nonprofit
for low-income residents, said the DHS has struggled for years to
communicate fluently with its steadily increasing clientele of
non-English-speaking District residents.
She and other advocates testified earlier this year in support of an
amendment to the Language Access Act that is making its way through the
D.C. Council. Among other things, the amendment would impose stiffer
penalties on those who violate the law.
“Of my public-benefits clients that are non-English speakers, a very large
percentage of them do not get language access at some part of their
interaction,” Miles-Lee said, adding that many are unwilling to complain
about this experience for fear of retribution.
“They just go about their lives and assume that they don’t qualify”
whenever a language barrier leads to a
denial of benefits, she said. “Or, they just give up.”
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