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Back to Victim Language Rights

From Barrier to Barring the Door

When non English-speaking victims in Sonoma County call police for help, they are far too often met instead with a refusal to translate that blocks her access to protection and justice. The following five stories from our current cases are typical of the continual flow of such cases which seems to be increasing rather than decreasing. The women have given permission to tell their stories in the hopes that others will be treated properly. All names have been changed.

Lorena's Story:
The Way It Should Be - From the Start

It's so simple.... The Santa Rosa police officer pulled a card from his pocket, picked up our office phone, and dialed the Language Line. He gave the operator his account number, and asked for a Spanish interpreter. In less than a minute, a professional interpreter was on the line.

Seated face-to-face, only a couple feet from the officer, 19 year-old Lorena sat tense to the breaking point on the edge of her chair. It had taken all our effort before the officer arrived just to calm Lorena to the point where she could tell her story. Now Lorena fixed her stare on the officer as if desperately trying to anchor herself in an impossible emotional storm.

Looking back at Lorena, the officer asked her in a language she couldn't understand, "Can you tell me what happened?" He paused, and passed the phone to Lorena. Lorena listened intently to the translator. For a moment, she hesitated, as if not quite convinced this was going to work; then she poured her story out. Without prompting, Lorena passed the phone back to the officer. It was then, as she watched the officer take notes while listening to the interpreter on the phone, that for the first time you could see the terror visibly begin to dissipate from Lorena's eyes.

The conversation between the officer and Lorena quickly set into that slow, reliable rhythm of well translated conversations. Conversations, that because of the rhythmic pauses, are often calmer and more composed than conversations where people are speaking the same language. It really is a form of magic.

In fifteen minutes the officer had obtained the accurate information he needed to open a criminal case against the husband, to get Lorena an emergency protective order, and to open a search for the children the husband was holding hostage, and to put them back in Lorena's arms.

But, as in so many other cases of Spanish-speaking victims, that isn't what the officer had set out to do. Instead, on first arriving at our office, he asked us for a brief summary of the case, which was fine. We told him that Lorena had fled the home following an attack by her husband, and that the husband had taken the children into hiding, and then sent a third person to tell her she would never see the children again if she didn't come back to him. The officer leaned over to us and said, "I'm sending her to deal with this in family court."

In effect, the officer was saying, 'I'm not going to waste valuable police time on this case.' "No," we said, "This is a criminal matter, and you're going to do it right." That resolved, the officer then asked us to translate. "No," we said, "You know that since we're advocates, our translating makes her statement assailable in court.". Only then did the officer pull out his pocket card to the Language Line and do it right.

When we're standing at the woman's side, we can often make it go right. But look what happens when a Spanish-speaking woman calls for police on her own.

Corina's Story: "We Never Use
Children to Translate"

For ten years, police throughout Sonoma County have sworn up and down that they would never even think of using children to translate in domestic violence cases. And for ten years, we've been bringing them cases that prove otherwise. Here's one more.

This summer, when the Sheriff's deputy who responded to Corina's call for help began to use her husband's 13- year-old niece to translate, Corina protested immediately. As best she could in her very limited English, Corina asked the deputy for a real interpreter. The deputy outright refused. He indicated that the 13-year-old girl could interpret just fine.

Feeling defeated, Corina went ahead anyway and told bits of her story to police through her husband's niece; that she was very afraid, and that her husband was making death threats. But Corina also held back important parts of her story. And she had no idea how much of what she was saying was actually being translated to the officer.

Then, to make matters worse, like a throwback to the dangerous, discarded practices of thirty years ago, the deputy informally told the husband to leave the home for 24hours. He made no effort to obtain a proper emergency protective order for Corina, nor to interview key witnesses, nor to investigate further. Instead, as in so many cases of Spanish- speaking victims, the deputy walked away.

Fortunately, Corina found her way to us. We protested the deputy's response. A detective was dispatched to do things correctly. The full story was obtained, witnesses interviewed, a protective order was written, the husband was arrested and is now charged with multiple counts of domestic violence. But ask any officer today, and they're certain to tell you again. They never use children to translate in domestic violence.
Note : For more on Sheriff response to Spanish-speaking victims see Andrea's Story, A Million Dollars Wasn't Enough

Stephanie's Story:
He Says She's Crazy, So Take Her Away

Despite the fact that Stephanie's husband was 28 years older than her, despite the fact that he was a Sonoma County businessman who naturally spoke English, and that he had bought Stephanie when she was a homeless, single mother living in wretched poverty in the streets of Central America, and despite the fact that he had held her in virtual slavery since bringing her back to the states, Stephanie dared to rebel.

And when she began to disobey his orders and resist his attacks, it was as if her husband knew instinctively that the police would serve as his right hand man. Stephanie's husband, himself, would call the police on her.

On one occasion last fall, when Stephanie refused to obey him, he called Santa Rosa police and told them Stephanie was crazy and threatening suicide. Then, completely ignoring Stephanie's attempts in Spanish to protest to police that her husband was lying, police simply handcuffed Stephanie, and carted her off to Oakcrest. It then took Oakcrest a day and a half to get Stephanie an interpreter so she could communicate her story to the doctors. They determined she was fine and sent her home. The interpreter provided by Oakcrest after a day and a half was the cleaning lady.

And this summer, and again on her husband's word alone that Stephanie had hit him, Santa Rosa Police kicked Stephanie out of her home, opened a criminal 'assault with a deadly weapon' case against Stephanie, gave her husband a restraining order against Stephanie, and most unbearable to her of all, gave full custody of her new baby to the husband.

By the time Stephanie found her way to us she was buried under the full weight of both her husband's oppression and the justice system's immense power. As we worked to get things corrected, the first action of the judge in family court was to refuse to accept declarations written in Spanish by Stephanie's witnesses, telling her she had to get them translated herself. From police, to the hospital, to the judge, these officials illegally turned the language barrier into an impenetrable wall to keep Stephanie out and strengthen the husband's abuse.

Angelina's Story: Beneath Their Dignity

Law enforcement officers should use translators to translate. They shouldn't use translators to take over the critical work of the case investigation so that the officer can wash his hands of the woman, and walk away.

When Healdsburg Police went to Angelina's home in response to her call, they interviewed her English-speaking husband, and they had Angelina talk by phone to a bilingual civilian employee back at the station. But instead of using the civilian employee as translator, the officer turned over the whole interview. Not only didn't the officer question the victim through the translator, he didn't oversee that interview , and the consequences to Angelina were devastating. Angelina's husband was already on probation for domestic violence. And the civilian employee wrongly told Angelina that her husband's refusal to let her leave the home with the baby wasn't a crime, so there was nothing police could do. When the officer finally wrote a report on the case, in the space designated "victim statement", the officer wrote, "none".

In the days between this incident, and when Angelina found her way to us, her husband had now pulled a knife on Angelina and their 4-year -old daughter, and threatened to kill them. We called the probation department. But the probation officer did the same as the Healdsburg officer. She had a translator call Angelina, and then turned the interviewing task over to the translator. This time, the translator missed the critical new incident that had just occurred.

So it was back to the Healdsburg Police, whose officer now said he "can't find a translator", and, looking at his watch, said "And it's too late" to call the Language Line, (knowing full well the line operates 24 hours a day). It took days of hammering on the walls of discrimination to get Angelina's statement properly on the record. The husband has now been convicted of a felony on the new crimes which, with proper police work in the first place, would never have occurred.

Andrea's Story:
A Million Dollars Wasn't Enough

Standing in court at the end of June, Andrea still couldn't believe the judge was setting her free of all charges, free to go on with her life, with no conviction, no probation, no court more dates, and no record. It had been a very long road from the double dose of despair that had paralyzed Andrea for months. Despair from living so long under domestic violence, compounded by despair that when she called the Sheriff for help, the deputy arrested her.

As in so many cases of Spanish-speaking victims, even though Andrea had made the 911 call, the deputy made no effort to get her statement. Instead, he took the English-speaking husband's word for what happened. Andrea asked for a translator. The deputy refused, and then arrested her.

Not only did Andrea protest right there at the scene. She tried again to communicate her side of the story when the deputy took her to the Sonoma Valley substation. This time, Andrea says, the arresting deputy and another deputy at the sub-station were laughing at her efforts.

The scene Andrea describes of being mocked by the Sonoma Valley substation deputies is eerily like that described by witness Marty Cabello in the federal civil rights case of Teresa Macias v. Sonoma County Sheriff's Dept.. You may remember that in that case, Teresa Macias was murdered by her husband a matter of weeks after being belittled by the deputies. And it was just two years ago, Sonoma County Sheriff was ordered by a federal judge to pay a million dollars to the Macias children for discriminating against their mother.

In Andrea's case, when the deputy then took her from the sub station to the jail, the mockery didn't stop. Andrea says she again tried to tell the deputy her side of the story. Again the deputy began taunting her again. "Come on, Andrea," he kept saying, "Speak English!" "You know you can speak English." "Come on, Andrea., come on, speak English!"

It wasn't until months of heartache later that the court finally heard Andrea's side of the story, and set her free.

$$$$$$$$$ Too Expensive? $$$$$$$$$$$$$

A fifteen minute Language Line interpreter to obtain a victim statement costs police less than $50 and saves the community immeasurable costs in more police calls, more oppressed women, more youth violence, and more general social demise.

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Copyright © Marie De Santis,
Women's Justice Center,


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