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Marketplace

Is it ever OK to ask children to translate for their parents in emergency situations?

Marketplace Contributor Aug 15, 2017
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Ft. Wayne police now carry language identifier notebooks with them as a way to determine and locate appropriate interpretation services. 
Erika Celeste/for Marketplace

When is it OK to ask children to translate for their parents in emergency situations? That’s a question law enforcement agencies are wrestling with more and more. That’s because 18.5 million children in the U.S.  have at least one immigrant parent, and more than half of those parents don’t speak English fluently.

Though Fort Wayne, Ind. is a medium-sized city of 254,000 people, about 100 languages are spoken there. That can make it tricky for authorities to follow regulations under the Civil Rights Act, which forbid children from translating during emergency situations.

“When our police officers respond to a crisis situation, often times children are at the forefront of that,” said police department multicultural liaison Ricardo Robles. While police can’t rely on children all the time, he pointed out that the law makes exceptions for life or death situations. “For the safety of everyone involved — we see them as a resource.” 

If emergency officials don’t comply with the law, they risk losing federal funds for things like equipment and training.

Fort Wayne only has a budget of $10,000 a year for translation, or roughly 222 hours of service. That means it must also rely on nonprofits and good relationships within the immigrant community for help.

Anna Guisti with the Fort Wayne Center for Nonviolence said while things are improving, she still sees too many police reports that rely on kids to translate for their parents during non-life threatening calls. “You don’t have to pay them. ‘I’m not taking the time to call an interpreter or pay for anybody else,’” she said. 

Not only can it cause trauma for a child, but Muneer Ahmad with Yale Law School said an inaccurate police report can affect a legal case. “So, for those who are non-English speakers the consequence is a real degradation of the quality of justice in the system as a whole.”

Alejandro Morales, a language broker expert, said it’s difficult to know how often children translate for law enforcement because there is no national database. “This is a topic that is fairly new. Policy makers, educators, even politicians don’t necessarily know about this topic,” Morales said. 

As awareness of the issue grows, many mid-sized cities such as Forth Worth, Tulsa and New Orleans have created programs to educate law enforcement and work with immigrant communities.

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