Language Access is Crucial in Domestic Violence Cases

From a language access perspective, law enforcement response to domestic violence situations  requires awareness of many crucial factors – the primary language spoken by the alleged victim and the alleged perpetrator, cultural issues, and being careful not to assume that if someone speaks English, that language ability gives them additional credibility, to the detriment of the limited English person.

A recent study by New Jersey-based Partners entitled ““In Their Own Words: Domestic Violence Survivors on Seeking Safety and Police Responses,” reveals how fraught domestic violence calls to police can be, raising serious concerns related to underlying issues of culture-based mistrust of authority, implicit bias responses, and reactions of potential domestic violence victims that are heavily influenced by trauma and fear.

As Reported by USA Today:

As part of Partners’ study, “In Their Own Words: Domestic Violence Survivors on Seeking Safety and Police Responses,”  our policy team interviewed about 10 primary Spanish speakers [from New Jersey] with limited English proficiency who had sought police assistance for a domestic violence crime. Even though survivors were ultimately successful in connecting with Spanish speaking officers, they reported concerns around wait times and identified a pattern of officers responding to the English-speaking harm doer as the first point of contact, rather than the victim…

Confronted by an authority figure who asks questions in an interrogating way, victims may not feel safe to disclose all of the relevant information to police or may provide emotional and seemingly jumbled accounts because of the impact of extreme trauma and fear. These challenges only multiply when the survivor has limited English proficiency or is deaf. Police can easily miss or misinterpret important information when they lack a nuanced understanding of the victim’s language. Language access is critical to ensuring that all survivors can navigate legal processes and access domestic violence services to avoid revictimization.”

Indeed, the issue of favoring English speakers in a case of domestic violence is made worse when the police are unable or unwilling to identify or use a qualified law enforcement officer or other police employee as an interpreter. In addition, it is axiomatic that access to a language services provider and the use of such readily accepted practices as “I Speak Cards” to identify the spoken languages at issue in a dangerous, emotionally charged situation are essential to navigating them successfully and safely.

Having language services available for immediate use by police officers in the field has long been recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) as crucial for law enforcement activities.

“Telephonic interpretation is particularly useful for officers in the field, during 911 calls, or in other instances in which a range of languages could be encountered and swift response is necessary. Telephonic interpretation can be conducted utilizing a commercial telephonic interpretation service, professional interpreter, or trained bilingual staffer who cannot be available onsite (e.g., a police call at 3:00 a.m.).

Commercial telephonic interpretation services are helpful where in-house language capacity is insufficient or unavailable. Telephone interpretation services are immediately available when crisis management is required in a range of languages. Such services can provide a per minute rate in a broad range of languages.”

“Limited English Proficiency Resource Document: Tips and Tools from the Field,” U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, 2004

Not being able to identify and communicate in the languages that law enforcement is faced with can enable the potential domestic violence perpetrator who speaks English.

According to USA Today:

“The harm doer may deliberately misrepresent the facts or paint the victim either as the perpetrator or as someone suffering from mental illness.

As Navneet Bhalla, executive director of Manavi, an organization serving South Asian domestic violence victims, explains: “The person who can speak English is perceived as the credible one.” Furthermore, the reliance on family members or friends to translate in the absence of trained interpreters can introduce a lack of reliability, given potential conflicts of interest, and amplify trauma, especially for children. These practices systemically silence and disempower LEP and deaf and hearing-impaired survivors and can further jeopardize an already vulnerable victim’s safety.”

In non-emergencies, DOJ strongly discourages the use of ad-hoc interpreters, friends, neighbors, onlookers, relatives, children, in domestic violence cases.

As DOJ states:

“Accuracy and effective communication are as critical in domestic violence situations as in any emergency situation. Do not rely on friends and family members to interpret for the LEP victim in important and sensitive interactions.

It is very important to avoid using children as interpreters in domestic violence cases. Since many children accompany the client to meetings or at the shelter, police departments, and other services, it is sometimes perceived as convenient to use children to interpret. Children can suffer psychological harm from having to hear and interpret the details of abuse.”

New Jersey is a particularly diverse state, USA Today reports, making the availability of language resources even more crucial. More than 31%  of New Jersey residents speak a language other than English at home, according to the 2020 Census, and more than 22% of state residents were born outside the United States

USA Today notes that New Jersey police departments:

“generally lack policies addressing language access, with the exception of guidance from the Attorney General, regarding communications with deaf and hearing-impaired individuals.

The [language access] burden rests upon victims to request an interpreter, rather than upon the police, and one might not be available at the police station, as many police departments do not have funding for interpreting services. By contrast, the New Jersey judiciary has a more robust language access framework under the New Jersey Judiciary Language Access Plan, which provides for interpreting services and the translation of documents.”

A recent development may change the law enforcement language deficit. New policies contained in the State’s Domestic Violence Procedures Manual direct law enforcement to “have clear policies and procedures regarding language access and will make best efforts to communicate with victims in the language most comfortable for them.” Such policies are also a clear expectation and requirement pursuant to such federal laws as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Safe Streets Act for law enforcement agencies receiving federal funds.

USA Today suggests that the New Jersey Attorney General should build upon the new Domestic Violence Procedures directive to provide “specific guidance and technical assistance for statewide implementation of improved language access practices.”

State and local governments must be proactive in their provision of language services, especially in emergencies, and fully compliant with their federal civil rights obligations. Adhering to the following DOJ admonition is most advisable for their day-today activities:

“Recipients of federal financial assistance engaged in emergency management activities, as well as recipients that provide emergency-related services, such as … law enforcement agencies, must comply with Title VI at all times.

In fact, complying with these requirements becomes even more important during emergencies and disasters in order to ensure that no one is unjustly denied the services and support they need during times of crisis, when their physical safety or well-being are often at greatest risk, and when many of the resources they might otherwise have drawn upon for support may not be available. Proper planning to comply with Title VI requirements avoids complications imposed by the exigencies of emergencies and disasters.”

© Bruce L. Adelson 2023. All Rights Reserved The material herein is educational and informational only.  No legal advice is intended or conveyed.

Bruce L. Adelson, Esq., is nationally recognized for his compliance expertise.  Mr. Adelson is a former U.S Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Senior Trial Attorney.  Mr. Adelson is a faculty member at the Georgetown University School of Medicine and University of Pittsburgh School of Law where he teaches organizational culture, implicit bias, cultural and civil rights awareness.

Mr. Adelson’s blogs are a Bromberg exclusive.