Feds review county DSS's translation services

Albemarle County’s Department of Social Services (DSS) is at risk of losing funding if it cannot comply with federal requirements to provide adequate language translation to “limited English proficient” (LEP) residents. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights has notified the county that it is reviewing its Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program to see if it is in compliance with federal civil rights laws.

“Specifically, the review aims to ensure that limited-English-proficient persons have meaningful access to TANF services and benefits,” says Kathy Ralston, county DSS director. “We have supplied them with the items they requested and are waiting for them to let us know about a site visit.”

DSS used interpreters on 597 occasions between July 2007 and May 2008 for languages that included Spanish, Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Korean, Maay Maay, Somali, Burmese, Turkish, Albanian, Vietnamese, Farsi and Thai. Many of those languages are spoken by refugees relocated to the Charlottesville area by the International Rescue Committee, which helps fund interpreter services.

The federal government stipulates that agencies like DSS take “reasonable steps to provide meaningful access to programs and activities” for those who speak other languages. In order to provide equitable access to programs like TANF, Food Stamps or Medicaid, DSS currently employs four fluent Spanish speakers, in addition to using teleinterpreters.

It’s unclear why the county’s department is under federal review. “I don’t know what prompted the review,” says DSS’ John Freeman. “We believe we have taken numerous steps over time to comply. However, it’s always possible to improve, and where improvement opportunities are identified in this review, we will certainly want to address them to the full extent that our resources allow.”

Typically, the federal Office for Civil Rights will review an agency and issue a corrective action plan to help the particular agency comply. If that plan is not followed, severe penalties can result in the agency even losing its federal funding.

County DSS had already begun an internal review. “We have been pretty proactive on developing mechanisms on LEP access,” Ralston says.

Freeman says that DSS makes a conscious effort to get more language skills on staff: “As positional vacancies occur that may involve contact with LEP persons, we advertise for positional requirements but make bilingual ability a ‘preferred’ or ‘desired’ item, and in recent years have had some success, particularly in adding bilingual English/Spanish speakers to our staff.”

Other county departments have been making efforts to make sure that, at least when Spanish is required, some staff can translate. The police department has three bilingual staffers, while fire and rescue have “several,” according to county spokesperson Lee Catlin. She points out that the county also offers classes in conversational and advanced Spanish.

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