February 23, 2010

Testimony to City Council: Improve Language Access to Public Assistance

Yesterday, we posted Stacy Braverman's testimony before DC City Council's oversight hearings of the Department of Human Services. The following is the testimony of Bread for the City attorney Allison Miles-Lee, who represents Bread for the City in the Language Access Coalition. Allison speaks to the challenge that non-English speakers face when trying to obtain public assistance -- food stamps in particular.

Good morning/afternoon. My name is Allison Miles-Lee. I am a bilingual family law and public benefits staff attorney at Bread for the City.

Others have given testimony today and in the past about ways that DHS can improve its customers’ access to services. However, these improvements will be meaningless for a large portion of DC residents unless DHS also provides services in a language that its customers can understand.

Under federal and DC laws, including the 2004 DC Language Access Act, DHS is required to provide meaningful access to services for limited and non-English speaking customers. This includes oral interpretation and written translation of vital documents. But we have frequently seen and heard from non-English speaking customers who were turned away by security guards or front desk staff at service centers because they were not able to communicate in English. We have seen frontline staff at one service center attempting to communicate with a Spanish speaking customer by Googling phrases in Spanish, and IMA (Income Maintenance Administration) eligibility workers frequently rely on customers’ children, other family members or advocates to provide oral interpretation for customers. In more alarming cases, customers have reported being shouted at and belittled in English, castigated for not speaking the language.

In our experience, even if customers do receive language interpretation at IMA service centers during their initial interview, information about their language preference is somehow not captured by IMA’s computer system. This happens even though the capture of such information is required by the Language Access Act. As a result, we have seen that important follow-up notices are often sent to these limited or non-English speaking customers in English.

I recently helped two clients, Ms. C and Ms. D, with very similar problems. Both are Spanish-speaking single mothers, who had applied for food stamps for their children multiple times at the Taylor street service center. Both failed to receive adequate Spanish interpretation at the service center, and left believing they had been denied benefits each time. They finally sought the assistance of an attorney since they did not understand why their applications continued to be denied.

I quickly learned that in both cases, my clients had actually been approved for food stamps and food stamps cases had been opened more than eight months earlier. In both cases, an EBT card had been issued to each woman and benefits were loaded onto the card every month.

Luckily, the EBT cards were still available to be picked up, and the benefits on the cards had not yet expired. Ms. D’s card had over $2,700 of food stamps loaded onto it when she picked it up. Neither of these women was told in Spanish at the service center that their food stamps case had even been opened. In addition, because neither of these women ever received notices of approval for food stamps in Spanish, or notices explaining where to pick up their EBT cards in Spanish, they had no idea these cards were waiting for them. Our understanding, after speaking with senior DHS staff, is that if these cards had not been picked up, the money loaded onto the cards would not be refunded to DHS, even after it expired. The failure to send notices in a comprehensible language to these clients was almost a lose-lose situation, for the clients and for the agency.

In these cases, since the women also did not receive notice of the need to recertify for food stamps benefits in Spanish, their cases had been closed after 6 months for failure to recertify. Working with IMA appeals officers and other senior DHS staff, I was able to secure retroactive benefits for both women. Ms. D received over $2,500 in retroactive benefits. While she was happy to finally get the benefits that her three children were entitled to, much had happened during the months she believed she had been denied benefits. Unable to purchase food for her children and pay rent, Ms. D was forced to move out of the apartment she had rented and into the basement of a family friend with her children.

For both of these women, as well as other Bread for the City clients, senior IMA staff quickly remedied problems and restored or provided benefits once we brought a language access concern to their attention. However, we are concerned about the doubtless many other customers who have encountered language access barriers and do not seek the help of advocates like those at Bread for the City.

Unless IMA comes into compliance with DC and federal laws regarding language access, any of its other service improvements will still leave a large portion of its customers in the dark.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak today.

No comments: