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Language advocates call for change: urge passage of law mandating translation and interpretation services

Long Island Language Advocates Coalition (LILAC) coordinator and senior paralegal at Empire Justice Cheryl Keshner speaking at a Suffolk County Legislature public hearing Tuesday in Riverhead. Photo: Maria Piedrabuena

Language access barriers still prevent residents from obtaining information and services in county agencies, in violation of federal law and a six- year-old executive order aimed at complying with the federal statute.

Language access advocates told county legislators Tuesday that compliance testing they’ve conducted has shown serious gaps, which violated not only the civil rights of limited English proficiency residents, but also exposed a series of negligent actions in some county agencies.

“We commend the county for the efforts they have made, but there are very serious problems in terms of training and oversight,” Long Island Language Advocates Coalition (LILAC) coordinator and senior paralegal at Empire Justice Cheryl Keshner said.

“The status quo is not acceptable and there needs to be changes.”

Members of the Long Island Language Advocates Coalition at the Suffolk County Legislature in Riverhead on Tuesday. Photo: Maria Piedrabuena

Advocates from several organizations that form LILAC spoke at a public hearing yesterday and said that bilingual testers had performed a series of calls last year and early this year and asked “basic questions” to different county agencies including all police precincts, parks and recreation, Department of Labor, Department of Social Services, probation, youth services and others.

From hanging up and denying them services, to insulting testers, SEPA Mujer (Advancement of Women) community organizer Dulce Rojas and others described similar experiences at the different agencies and expressed dismay at the situation.

“If basic questions get these kinds of answers, when real emergencies happen what can you expect,”? said Rojas.

Rojas said that in one particular case, a test phone call made to the Suffolk’s County Police Department Seventh Precinct resulted in the woman being called a “bitch” and was told “to go back to their country.”

Several legislators were visibly disturbed by the testimonies and asked about the follow-up on these situations.

Legislator Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) Tuesday at the public hearing in Riverhead. Photo: Maria Piedrabuena

“That is an inflammatory accusation and I would expect that this incident was reported,” Legislator Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) said.

Keshner said that their test results were submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice as well as to former Suffolk County Police Commissioner Timothy Sini.

Legislators asked advocates to submit a copy of their findings and other incidents reported for further review.

Suffolk County Police Department Lt. Michael Homan said that they “take any complaint seriously” and they “will be in communication [with LILAC] to get further details about any incident.”

A total of 88 phone calls were made from August 2017 to January 2018 in what Keshner called the “last wave of testing.”(Other testing has been done since 2012, she said.) Informational questions like “When is the next public meeting?” were asked, Keshner said.

Of those 88 calls, 52 were answered by a person, and 14 were connected to an interpretation phone language line. The remaining 22 times callers did not receive any kind of service or the call wasn’t answered.

“More frequent reporting of language access implementation is required and this bill is the right step in that direction,” said Keshner.

The bill sponsored by County Legislator Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood) would codify a 2012 executive order by County Executive Steve Bellone directing county agencies to offer language access services to people of limited English proficiency, offering translation of vital documents in the six most frequent languages and access to interpretation using phone access lines.

“I am proud of working together with community groups and language access advocates to advance this important piece of legislation which will guarantee a better delivery of services to ALL residents particularly in times of crisis,” said Martinez.

Additionally this bill would expand language access requirements to agencies run by other elected officials, such as the sheriff’s, comptroller’s and treasurer’s offices, said Keshner.

Bellone’s executive order follows state and federal bills mandating the same, Keshner told legislators.

Keshner explained yesterday that after Marcelo Lucero was killed in 2008 by a group of teenagers in Patchogue who had beaten and bullied Lucero, the U.S. Justice Department opened an investigation and found the Suffolk County Police Department was not compliant with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which says that agencies receiving federal funds are prohibited from discriminating against persons on the basis of race, color or national origin.

The federal agency found the county had severe gaps in services that needed to be corrected. Among those, language access and cultural competence were specifically highlighted as crucial to improve relations with the community, Keshner said.

The Justice Department then entered into an agreement in 2011 with the Suffolk County Police Department that, among other things, mandated the translation of vital documents, the translation of their website, interpretation services and other language access services and programs for LEP residents.

“Language access lines are available at every single precinct and also availabe by cell phone,” Homan said.

Signage making people aware of the services are posted in precincts, the academy and headquarters, he said.

He also said that callers with limited English proficiency who dial 911 have to be connected to a language access line.

“911 has the availability to use the language access line immediately, that is a priority,” he said.

He also added that when responding to call in person, they have bilingual officers on staff, and that all officers have been trained to access the language access line if needed.

Language advocates said that although there are signs of progress since 2012 and some agencies have better responded than others, training and oversight are key since implementation was not consistent.

Keshner said that in one instance a woman in Queens went to the police to report her husband was threatening to kill her and her kids. That report was never translated and the woman and children ended up being murdered.

“The one time somebody reaches out for assistance may be the only time they can do it,” said Keshner. “We don’t want that one time to happen here.”

Maria Piedrabuena
María, a multimedia reporter, graduated from Stony Brook University with degrees in journalism and women and gender studies. She has worked for several news outlets including News12 and Fortune Magazine. A native of Spain, she loves to read, write and travel. She lives in Manorville. Email Maria