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Communications 101: Closing the language barriers in state agencies

Inconsistent and often substandard language access practices across state government agencies continually hinder non-English speakers.


The stakes can be very high when the Department of Children & Families intercedes between a parent and their child. Now imagine if the parent doesn’t speak English.

That’s what happened to Juan Abad, a Dominican immigrant who’s been a Lynn resident for roughly a decade. Abad didn’t know he had fathered twins until one of them died from severe physical abuse inflicted by the mother’s boyfriend. The state’s Office of the Child Advocate reviewed the horrific case and found that DCF failed to protect the three-month-old baby. The mother, who along with her boyfriend was charged in connection with the baby’s death, called Abad to tell him he was the babies’ father and that the surviving twin, Anthony, had been put in foster care.


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

It’s why state lawmakers should swiftly report out of committee and then pass legislation that would standardize and meaningfully improve translation and interpretation services in 10 to 12 languages across several state agencies, including DCF, MassHealth, and the Department of Unemployment Assistance, among others. The languages are likely to be: Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Haitian Creole, Cape Verdean Creole, Khmer, Russian, Arabic, Korean, and French. A Senate budget amendment would dedicate $8 million in funding to get the ball rolling.

Nearly 1 in 4 people in Massachusetts speaks a language other than English at home. Almost 10 percent of the total population have limited English proficiency — and they tend to be among the most vulnerable: Roughly 40 percent of them live in poverty, whereas the poverty rate statewide is just under 10 percent.


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

That’s what happened to Abad. For his 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 visitation sessions with Anthony, the social worker repeatedly told him not to speak to him in Spanish. “What language did she want me to speak, Chinese?” he said.

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

Other state agencies routinely fall short of offering adequate interpretation or translation services to the public, a language equity gap that became grossly evident during the coronavirus pandemic.

Zayda Ortiz is a community activist in Malden who cofounded a local mutual aid group when the pandemic hit. Soon she was getting all the calls that came in Spanish; she estimates she fielded between 10 to 15 calls in Spanish a week.


“The pandemic has shown that people are willing to step up, but we shouldn’t have to. We do it because we’ve all experienced 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 the Malden public schools. “Can we get at least the top five or 10 languages? How are people going to be engaged if we’re not doing that?”

Maya, a Vietnamese immigrant from Dorchester who did not want to give her full name because she is a victim of domestic violence, said in an interview via an interpreter that she received a letter from the state asking her to return nearly $9,000 she had legitimately received in unemployment benefits. The state kept calling asking her to return the money “but they hung up on me many times” when she requested a Vietnamese speaker, she said. Eventually, Maya brought the letter to a domestic violence advocate at the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence who was able to sort out what proved to be just missing paperwork from Maya.

As for Abad, his English is improving, and Anthony, now bilingual, is thriving with him. But the demand for English-language classes outpaces the supply. According to state data, the waitlist as of May 20 is nearly 12,000 individuals; there are roughly 125 programs offering English for Speakers of Other Languages classes.


Some may wonder why more immigrants don’t learn English. But that high demand functions as another language barrier for them. In the meantime, better language interpretation and translation services from public-facing state agencies would provide them with a lifeline.

Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.