Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Language Access Victory For Legal Aid Client

Rachel Lukens, Volunteer Attorney

Legal Aid recently obtained another important victory under the DC Language Access Act of 2004 for one of its clients.  For nearly two years, Legal Aid client Ms. Salmerón was repeatedly denied her rights under the Act in her interactions with the D.C. Child Support and Services Division (CSSD).  Ms. Salmerón’s difficulties began in May 2009, when she sought but was denied effective assistance from CSSD because no Spanish interpreters were provided and no bilingual employees were available.  She returned in January 2010, requested Spanish language assistance, and was told to wait until a bilingual employee could be found to help her.  After waiting for several hours, Ms. Salmerón was told to go home and return another day.  No bilingual employee was found to assist her, and CSSD did not attempt to provide interpretation services through a telephonic interpretation service or similar means.  Ms. Salmerón returned again in February 2010, and was asked to sign an affidavit in English.  After repeated requests for a Spanish interpreter, a bilingual CSSD employee finally provided an oral interpretation of the affidavit before Ms. Salmerón signed it.  On several occasions, Ms. Salmerón was improperly instructed to bring a bilingual family member or friend to interpret for her.

In October and November 2009, Ms. Salmerón received several documents in English from CSSD providing information about her case, without any written or verbal Spanish translation.  On multiple occasions throughout 2010 and 2011, Ms. Salmerón received Monthly Notice of Child Support Account Activity reports written in English, without any Spanish translation or explanation of the document.  Ms. Salmerón was also required to fill out several forms in English without any written or verbal Spanish translation.

Jennifer Hatton

Jennifer Hatton, Former Legal Aid Staff Attorney

With the assistance of former Legal Aid attorney Jennifer Hatton, Ms. Salmerón filed a language access complaint in December 2010 with the D.C. Office of Human Rights (OHR) alleging violations of the D.C. Language Access Act against CSSD.  The Act requires District government agencies to “provide oral language services to a person with limited or no-English proficiency who seeks to access or participate in the services, programs, or activities offered” by the agencies.  Under the Act and its implementing regulations, agencies are instructed when to use in-person interpretation and when to use a telephonic interpretation service.  In all instances, some form of interpretation must be provided to ensure that a person with limited or no-English proficiency may benefit from the agency’s programs at a level equal to English proficient individuals.  The agencies must also provide written translation of vital documents into languages other than English when those languages are prevalent enough, as defined by the Act, to warrant translation.  OHR conducted an investigation and issued its findings of fact and conclusions of law on October 4, 2011.

OHR found that CSSD violated the Act by failing to provide services in Spanish during Ms. Salmerón’s May 2009 and January 2010 visits, and by leaving her waiting for an inordinate amount of time before ultimately sending her home without providing any services or interpretation at the January 2010 visit.  OHR clarified that CSSD must translate vital documents into Spanish for its Spanish-speaking clients.  OHR found that CSSD violated the Act by failing to provide written translations of four documents that are “vital” within the meaning of the Act.  The decision also noted that the letter accompanying the Monthly Notice of Child Support should also be translated into Spanish.  Although the Monthly Notice is a computer-generated document, OHR stated that technological barriers are no justification for violations of the Act.

In November 2011, OHR issued and CSSD agreed to comply with the following corrective actions: (1) Require all CSSD staff to ask all customers if they need assistance in a language other than English and immediately call a telephonic interpretation service for any limited English proficient or no English proficient constituent; (2) all public contact position (PCP) staff shall attend a language access training conducted by OHR in February 2012; (3) all PCP staff shall be issued a Language Line Services (LLS) Quick Reference Guide, which provides instructions for how to access a telephonic interpretation service, and maintain it on his or her desk at all times; (4) all PCP staff who work in the field shall be issued a wallet size LLS Quick Reference Guide and carry it with him or her at all times; (5) CSSD shall have both large and small Interpretation Services Available signs displayed in all public contact points; (6) in consultation with OHR, CSSD’s vital documents shall be identified and translated into Spanish; and (7) CSSD shall identify a language access coordinator.

Legal Aid congratulates Ms. Salmerón for asserting her rights and for the steps that she has taken to improve language access in the District.  Legal Aid will continue to monitor CSSD’s interactions with its constituents to ensure that the agency complies with the corrective actions issued by OHR as a result of Ms. Salmerón’s language access complaint.

 Victoria de Acceso Lingüístico para Cliente de La Sociedad de Asistencia Legal
Translation by Raquel Aguirre

Raquel Aguirre, Legal Administrative Assistant

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