Someone in their Corner: Bilingual volunteers needed to advocate for children

Sep 29 2016

Someone in their Corner: Bilingual volunteers needed to advocate for children

By Steven Olender

Last week, one of our supervisors received an email from a volunteer who had to miss a placement meeting. "Are you able to be at the meeting Thursday morning," asked the volunteer. "There have been multiple misunderstandings between [Child Protective Services] and the family. I believe it is in the family's best interest if someone who knows the language and culture and is familiar with the case is there."

On the case in question, neither parent spoke English and the only people involved with the case who could communicate with them in Spanish were the CASA volunteer and her supervisor. Earlier in the case, problems had arisen when there was a miscommunication due to the language barrier. Parental rights had nearly been terminated because a mistranslation led CPS to believe parents weren't able to keep a stable home for the child. Fortunately, the bilingual CASA volunteer was able to contact the parents directly and clear up the misunderstanding.

This is an all too common occurrence in the child welfare system in Texas, where many parents do not speak English and there is a shortage of bilingual caseworkers and attorneys. Where there are gaps, CPS contracts with interpreters and a language line, but the child welfare system is complex and difficult to understand even without having to go through translation. To make matters worse, there are not direct translations for many concepts in the system, including "foster care." When translators are not intimately familiar with the intricacies of the child welfare system, important information can be lost. This language barrier can lead to CPS getting a fractured view of a situation or to parents breaking rules they simply didn't understand.

Having a bilingual CASA volunteer can mitigate these concerns and more. They are often the only ones who can communicate with all parties on the case and are the person best suited to help parents understand what is happening. Dealing with a system that removes children is scary for any parent. It is worse when a language barrier means that parents don't understand what is happening and feel misunderstood by the system. Bilingual CASA volunteers are a huge comfort to these families and are able to answer questions and have difficult conversations. They have the dual role of advocating for youth and assuring parents understand and are understood by the system.

As a result, they are able to form closer bonds with these families and often become a family's first point of contact throughout the case. This is invaluable as we are sometimes the first told of a family's needs, of deeper details of the case and of family members who could serve as placements. We regularly become the bridge that helps families and CPS work together instead of in opposition. Having someone who can communicate directly and create a relationship with families allows the whole system greater access to the information we need to keep kids safe and help them thrive. "They need someone in their corner," says Child Advocacy Specialist Alejandro Victoria. "Bilingual volunteers can be that someone."

National Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated from September 15th through October 15th each year.  Hispanic children made up the largest part of our client population at 37% of the 1,834 children we served last year, yet only 9% of our volunteers were Hispanic. Continuing our celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, later in October we’ll take a look at how CASA volunteers help children stay connected to their culture and heritage even when placed away from parents and relatives. If you’re interested in volunteering, and particularly if you’re bilingual in Spanish and English, visit our Volunteer page to learn more.