Communications 101: Removing Language Barriers in State Agencies

Thus began Abad’s five-year ordeal to gain custody of Anthony, in a case that was hampered by the DCF’s language access shortcomings. The case illustrates the inconsistent and more than often substandard language access practices in state government agencies. Although it is required by federal law to provide timely and culturally competent oral language services to people with limited English proficiency, the law is rarely enforced.

That’s why state lawmakers should quickly report out of the committee and then move on. legislation who would be standardize and significantly improve translation and interpretation services in 10 to 12 languages ​​in several state agencies, including DCF, MassHealth, and the Department of Unemployed Assistance, among others. Languages ​​are likely to be: Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Haitian Creole, Cape Verdean Creole, Khmer, Russian, Arabic, Korean and French. A Amendment to the Senate Budget would dedicate $8 million in funding to get the ball rolling.

Almost 1 in 4 people in Massachusetts speaks a language other than English at home. Almost 10% of the total population have limited English proficiency – and they tend to be among the most vulnerable: around 40% of them living in povertywhile the statewide poverty rate is just under 10%.

So many non-English speaking families complained to DCF lawyers and advocates that the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law & Justice set out to investigate the agency’s language services. What the researchers found was not beautiful. In a scathing report published last year, the researchers wrote that the majority of parents with limited English proficiency “do not receive sufficient interpreting, document translation or social services in their main language”.

This is what happened to Abad. For her custody case, DCF assigned a social worker who spoke only English. Abad said his action plan was not fully translated into Spanish. And when he started visiting with Anthony, the social worker repeatedly told him not to speak Spanish to her. “What language did she want me to speak, Chinese?” ” he said.

Meanwhile, many other states, such as California and Hawaii, have strong language access mandates. Why is Massachusetts waiting to follow their example?

Other public agencies fail to provide adequate interpretation or translation services to the public, a language equity gap that has become grossly obvious during the coronavirus pandemic.

Zayda Ortiz is a community activist from Malden who co-founded a local self-help group when the pandemic hit. Soon she was getting all the calls in Spanish; she estimates that she receives between 10 and 15 calls in Spanish per week.

“The pandemic has shown that people are ready to intervene, but we shouldn’t have to. We do it because we’ve all been through it,” she said. “Ya traes la costumbre, you’re already used to it – you hear someone batallando en Español, struggling in Spanish, and you start helping.” There are at least 70 languages ​​spoken in public schools in Malden. “Can we get at least the first five or ten languages? How are people going to engage if we don’t? »

Maya, a Vietnamese immigrant from Dorchester who would not give her full name because she is a victim of domestic violence, said in an interview through an interpreter that she received a letter from the state asking her to return nearly $9,000 she had rightfully received in unemployment benefits. The state kept calling her asking her to return the money “but they hung up on me several times” when she asked for a Vietnamese speaker, she said. Eventually, Maya took the letter to a domestic violence advocate in Asian Domestic Violence Task Force who was able to sort out what turned out to be just missing documents from Maya.

As for Abad, his English is improving, and Anthony, now bilingual, thrives with him. But the demand for English courses exceeds the supply. According to state data, the waiting list as of May 20 is nearly 12,000 people; there are approximately 125 programs offering English lessons for speakers of other languages.

Some may wonder why more immigrants are not learning English. But this high demand works as another language barrier for them. In the meantime, better interpretation and translation services from public public agencies would provide them with a lifeline.

Marcela García can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @marcel_elisa and on Instagram @marcel_elisa.

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