Why Language Access is Essential for Domestic Violence Survivors

Wednesday, October 27th, 2021

In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, this post comes from VPLC’s Domestic and Sexual Violence Attorney, Susheela Varky.

Imagine you have to go to court — whether it’s to pursue your own case against someone who has wronged you or because you’ve received a subpoena to appear as a witness in a case. Most people, save expert witnesses and trial attorneys, would be nervous, right? Now, imagine that English is not your first language, and you must rely on an interpreter — if the court has provided one for you — to give your testimony and to understand what the opposing party, judge, and even your own attorney are saying. You’re even more nervous, right? Now, put yourself in the shoes of a Limited English Proficiency (LEP) speaker who has screwed up their courage to file for a protective order against their abuser. One more layer of fear and anxiety, right?

Demographics in Virginia are changing.

To understand how important language access is to domestic violence survivors as well as all people trying to access services in Virginia, let’s look at the statistics. Our 2021 census data shows how demographics and languages spoken in Virginia have changed over the past 10 years. Virginia’s Hispanic population broke the 900,000 people mark in 2020, growing by more than 275,000 or 44% since 2010. Our Asian American population also grew significantly: in 2010, 522,000 people in Virginia — 6.5% of the state’s population — identified as Asian American. Now, people of Asian descent make up nearly 9% of the state’s population with 757,000 residents.[1]

Virginia’s changing demographics make language access essential. The graph below depicts the many languages spoken in Virginia from 2009-2013.[2]

Have Virginia’s services and courts adjusted to the change in demographics?

I recently heard about a domestic violence survivor who sought a protective order during COVID in 2020. She spoke Spanish and was told to meet the Court Services Unit Intake Officer outside of court to complete paperwork for her protective order. She was also told to bring her own interpreter. Because she didn’t have her own interpreter available, she couldn’t even complete the paperwork necessary to get before a judge to ask for a protective order.

This whole scene violates federal law. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in any program or activity that receives Federal funds or other Federal financial assistance. 42 U.S.C. 2000d et seq. Court Services Units, state agencies, and courts themselves receive Federal funds. Not providing interpreters effectively means these agencies are discriminating against a person on the basis of race, color, and/or national origin – and this would not be the first time localities in Virginia have been investigated for Title VI violations.

To serve all Virginians, we need to change old laws and improve language access.

In addition to assessing potential Title VI violations, Virginia Poverty Law Center and other advocates hope to repeal antiquated laws that discriminate against LEP speakers. Code of Virginia § 1-511 states “English shall be designated as the official language of the Commonwealth. Except as provided by law, no state agency or local government shall be required to provide and no state agency or local government shall be prohibited from providing any documents, information, literature or other written materials in any language other than English.” Repealing this law seems like an obvious target, especially given the two laws that passed during this year’s General Assembly: HB 1993, which requires, among other things, for all state agencies to “enhance equitable opportunities for the populations served by the agency […]” and HB 1800, Item 52 #2h, a budget amendment that requires the Governor’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to develop recommendations to implement a language access policy for all of Virginia’s state agencies.

Additionally, we must do better ourselves. While we use language interpretation services like LanguageLine and have some bilingual and/or bicultural staff members, Virginia Poverty Law Center needs to develop, maintain, and update its own language access plan and help our local legal aid offices to do so as well.

If you have a story you’d like to share about how you could not access services because of a language barrier, please feel free to contact me at susheela@vplc.org. I hope to hear from you.

[1] Excerpted from “Virginia is growing more diverse; population growth reserved for urban and suburban areas” by Mel Leonor, Richmond Times-Dispatch, August 15, 2021, https://richmond.com/news/state-and-regional/virginia-is-growing-more-diverse-population-growth-reserved-for-urban-and-suburban-areas/article_5176176f-7d62-54b2-940c-1ecc7dbc4f23.html

[2] Excerpted from “Language Access in Virginia speaks volumes,” by Amanda Owensby and Shonel Sen, August 3, 2015, https://statchatva.org/2015/08/03/language-diversity-in-virginia-speaks-volumes/ Data Source: All data is from the American Community Survey, 5-year estimates from 2005-2009 and 2009-2013.

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