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Coalition calls on Spokane County to improve language access

Rebecca White/SPR
The Spokane County Courthouse, where offices for the auditor, treasurer, assessor and county commissioners are located, as well as much of the county's criminal justice system.

This spring, members of the domestic violence service provider Mujeres in Action, or MiA, conducted an informal audit in Spokane County, in which they sought services in Spanish.

“It took us 20 minutes to get through security,” said Ana Trusty, director of communication for MiA. “One of our advocates told us when she was going through security with a participant, the participant got yelled at because she didn't understand what the security guard was telling her to do.”

She said their informal audit found there were no signs in any language other than English, employees weren’t sure what to do when they encountered people who weren’t fluent in English, and one county employee asked about their immigration status.

Trusty said Spokane County’s courts provide translators, a federal requirement, but many other parts of county government don’t appear to have training or a plan for employees to turn to when they encounter non-fluent English speakers.

She said that raises a barrier to justice and it’s already affected the outcome of cases for women in MiA’s programs.

“We were hearing from participants that they weren't getting protection orders, they weren't going to court to follow through with divorces, or parenting plans because they didn't know how to do it, and there was nobody there that could help them,” she said.

MiA is among organizations and community members who have asked Spokane County commissioners to fund and approve a centralized plan for language access, and consider hiring a language access coordinator.

According to an analysis from Spokane Trends, an Eastern Washington University project that analyzes Census and other data sets, about 7.7% of Spokane County’s population doesn’t speak English at home. That’s more than 42,000 people.

While some individual county departments have made efforts to make more language access services available, such as offering some forms in other languages, the decision to fund, and design a centralized language access program must come from the county commissioners.

Spokane County Commissioner Chris Jordan said he hopes to propose a language access study which could lead to a formal plan. He said once the county understands the gaps, they can work to fill them.

“It’s easy to say you support this, or you support that, but we need to know how much do things cost, where is the appropriate place for this work to be done, and let’s have that conversation, and study,” he said.

County Commissioner Amber Waldref said she’s also interested in pursuing a language access plan and hopes the county can bring community groups together to find out what’s needed most.

“I think we look for what's the best fit for Spokane County, what are the biggest needs, what are those costs and then we make decisions as a board what we can fund,” she said.

It will take support from three commissioners to launch a study, or pay for any additional language access services. Spokane County Commissioners Mary Kuney, Al French and Josh Kerns did not return requests for comment.

Meghan Ballard, a doctoral candidate at the University of California Irvine and a researcher who recently co-published a paper for the MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge, said there are several ways Spokane can increase language access that have been successful in other communities.

She said an effective language access plan doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. Common strategies include helping current employees who already speak other languages get certified, and pay incentives to retain them. She said a regularly updated plan, managed by a dedicated coordinator, can also be helpful.

She said many communities are technically compliant, in that their court system has translators available for those who request them, but that doesn’t mean that county government is truly accessible to everyone.

“The idea is not just that it’s about legal compliance, but it’s about serving your community,” she said. “I think if we kind of change the narrative about compliance, and think about serving your community and what does your community need, it feels like less than an uphill battle, and it’s less about how do I comply, and how do I serve.”

Ana Trusty said language shouldn’t be a barrier to getting a divorce, paying taxes or getting directions to find a courtroom and making a court date. She said there are a few steps the county could take now, like putting up signs in other languages, and ensuring county employees are trained.

“This is just something that we've been talking to them for so long, and that needs to move forward in some sort of way, because there is no access to justice unless you speak English,” she said.

This story was changed on July 14, 2023 to correct Ana Trusty's title.

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.