[lg policy] Lack of Language Access Is a Nationwide Crisis

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Wed Feb 21 10:30:39 EST 2018

 Lack of Language Access Is a Nationwide Crisis

Posted Monday, February 19, 2018 - 1:30 pm
News & Features <https://www.highbrowmagazine.com/news-features>
Angelo Franco

In August
Arlet Macareno lay in a heap at the bottom of the stairs of her apartment
building in Staten Island. That is where her niece found her and called
911. Arlet tried to tell the responding officers that her husband had
pushed her down, that she was in danger and she needed help. “I need
someone to translate,” Arlet said in her frantic, native Spanish. The
police decided to use her 22-year-old niece as an unofficial interpreter,
which resulted in Arlet being arrested and taken to the precinct, bruised
and barefoot. “Cállate la boca (shut your mouth),” the officers responded
in broken Spanish when she tried to protest.

Arlet spent the night in jail and, desperate to return to her 7-year-old
son, pleaded guilty to a charge of disorderly conduct. She went home to her
son and her abusive husband, whom the police had told to go back to sleep
the night before when they arrested Arlet.

The NYPD is the largest
police force in the nation with over 36,000 officers and 18,000 civilian
employees. Among its ranks, some 19,000
officers speak as many as 70 languages other than English. But in a
polyglot city like New York with a gargantuan population of 8.5 million
people, that may not be enough. According
to the Census Bureau, there are as many as 1.8 million Limited English
Proficient (LEP) persons in New York City alone – that is almost 1 in every
4 persons that can’t communicate in English proficiently (and more than
half the entire population speaks a language other than English at home).
In order to better serve this growing population, then-mayor Michael
Bloomberg expanded <http://www.nyc.gov/html/om/pdf/2008/pr282-08_eo_120.pdf>the
city’s language access policy in 2008. By 2009, when the Language Access
Plan was published
(since revised and updated), the city was, by law, requiring officers who
respond to a scene where interpretation services are needed to find and
provide them.

It was only since June of 2012, just months before Arlet’s incident, that
New York City had implemented Language Line services, supplying city
officials and police officers with 24/7 access to telephonic interpretation
when responding to calls that require them.

New York is not the only American city grappling with insufficient access
to language services and interpreters. It’s a nationwide crisis that
underscores an urgent need for more professional interpreters and
translators to assist the growing immigrant population that are limited
English proficient. In some California counties, the shortage of qualified
interpreters is so severe
it may violate constitutional law.

In Santa Clara County in the Bay Area, interpreters are concerned that the
lack of professional linguists is essentially creating a two-tier justice
system. LEP persons who do not have access to language interpretation
either keep getting their hearing delayed or cannot place any official
claims because there aren’t enough interpreters to help them. California is
one of the states that require interpreters to be certified to interpret in
court when assisting in official government affairs, such as trials and

The California Federation of Interpreters says that Santa Clara County
needs at least seven certified interpreters working daily at the county’s
superior court. Most of the time, there are only five interpreters darting
from proffers to sentencing hearings attempting to cover them all.
Exhaustion prevents interpreters from effectively translating for both
parties, and rushing from courtroom to courtroom causes delays which, in
turn, cost the courts money and time. This lack of language access is not
only detrimental to law enforcement from a victim’s point of view but from
charged defendants as well, who can win cases on appeal claiming they did
not understand the case against them.

Meanwhile, even though federal and state laws mandate that all patients who
need a medical interpreter be provided with one, California does not
specifically spell out just how qualified a medical interpreter needs to
be. This specificity proves crucial when healthcare providers are scurrying
to supply patients with well-qualified interpreters in order to comply with
the law. The issue
of using non-certified interpreters becomes even more pronounced when
dealing with languages other than Spanish, the most widely spoken language
in California after English.

There are approximately 8 million LEP people in the state of California,
according to the Census Bureau. Of these, more than half are Spanish
speakers which count with just under 600 certified medical interpreters in
the state – that’s about one interpreter for every 6,500 people. In
contrast, there are nearly 300,000 Vietnamese speakers in the Golden State.
Qualified Vietnamese medical interpreters: nine. For Tagalog speakers, the
numbers are even more dismal; there is only one certified medical
interpreter for the whole LEP Filipino community, which amounts to about
228,000. Because of this deficiency, healthcare providers often resort to
using uncertified interpreters to keep up with the demand, which may result
in mistranslations and misdiagnoses.

In 2010, a report
from UC Berkeley School of Public Health and National Health Law Program
examined 1,373 claims of malpractice in the state of California. The study
found that 35 of these cases, involving severe medical trauma and death,
were the direct result of poor medical interpreting. In one case, a child
who would later die from respiratory arrest provided her own interpreting
between the doctors and her parents. This problem was more apparent with
patients of Asian descent, as medical providers were often unable to
understand the need for the distinction between Indo-Asian languages, such
as Mandarin, Cantonese, and other Chinese dialects, for example.

Also in 2010, the federal government began
investigating the California court system after two Korean-speaking women
in Los Angeles alleged they were denied court interpreters. This, as is the
case with Santa Clara County, may have denied them their civil rights,
which prohibit discrimination based on national origin. As a result, the
state implemented its own language plan
<http://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/CLASP_report_060514.pdf>—similar to New
York City’s—in an attempt to provide interpreters to all non-English
speakers who needed them in court affairs.

Legal aid lawyers filed
a complaint on behalf of the two Los Angeles women, one of whom was an
elderly sexual assault victim seeking a restraining order against her
abuser and the other was a single mother seeking child support. The Los
Angeles Superior Court denied them interpreters on the basis that the court
was not mandated to provide language interpretation for such cases and, if
they wished, the victims could provide their own interpreters out of pocket
or use a friend or a family member for this purpose. The state of
California had long provided interpreters for juvenile and criminal cases,
but only recently have the courts been mandated to provide language
solutions for civil cases as well. The Justice Department and the Los
Angeles County Superior Court reached an agreement
to provide accurate language assistance to all LEP persons as recently as
late 2016. Depending on the area, language needs vary; some require common
world languages such as a Farsi, Russian, American Sign, and Arabic. But
other areas demand rarer tongues, such as Malayalam, Hmong, Mixteco, and
even dialects of the Aleutian Islands.

This expansion into offering less-common languages is not an isolated
development. Just last summer, New York City began to require
that all public agencies providing direct public and emergency services
translate all the documents they distribute into four additional languages,
bringing the total “most commonly used” languages in the city to 10. The
local government added Arabic, Urdu, French, and Polish to the roster that
had previously included—thanks to the 2008 language plan mentioned
above—Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Bengali, Haitian Creole, and Korean. But
implementation does not necessarily equate widespread usage. Despite the
training that government officials and police officers must take on how and
when to use these services available to them, the language access plan
remains underused, even when it involves languages as common as Spanish.

In May 2013, Deisy Garcia filed <http://voiceless.nycitynewsservice.com/> a
police report. An undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, Deisy wrote on the
report that she feared for hers and her two daughters’ lives because her
husband had threatened to kill her. The 21-year-old, who didn’t speak
English, wrote the report in Spanish. A few months later, at the end of
November, Deisy called 911 to report that her husband was being violent
and, once again, she filed a police report in Spanish. Both police reports
were not translated into English and so they were never officially marked
to be investigated or followed-up on. Less than two months later, Deisy’s
husband was caught in Texas trying to flee to Mexico after he stabbed and
killed Deisy and their two daughters. The children were 1 and 2 years old.
Following the incident, the police department sent out a staff memo stating
that all reports should be transcribed and translated to guarantee that
appropriate police services are provided.

The U.S. Department of Justice concluded in a 2010 investigation into the
NYPD that the department was not fully in compliance with the Civil Rights
Act because of its poor track record providing language solutions. Two
years later, the Justice Department led a follow-up investigation,
determining <https://ojp.gov/about/ocr/pdfs/NY-10-OCR-0015.pdf> in July of
2012 that the NYPD had taken significant steps to address its language
access issues and was now in substantial compliance with civil right
requirements. Three weeks later, Arlet’s husband would push her down the

*Author Bio:*

*Angelo Franco is Highbrow Magazine’s chief features writer.*


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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