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Language Access Improvements at DC Department of Human Services

Bread for the City’s limited and non-English speaking clients have struggled for years to get access to important government services at the DC Department of Human Services (DHS). These services include medical insurance for themselves and their children, food stamps, and temporary cash assistance for families with children.

DC already has a law that requires DHS and other DC government agencies to provide interpretation and, in many cases, written translation for customers who do not speak English. But time and time again, our clients have reported that DHS employees refuse to provide interpretation, rely on children to interpret for parents, or simply fail to send important notices about their benefits in their language.

As a result, many families have been wrongly denied benefits or have had their benefits cut off. Many non-English speaking customers never understood what went wrong with their benefits or mistakenly assumed they did not qualify. Families who wanted to challenge their termination or denial of benefits or DHS’s failure to provide language access faced a bureaucratic nightmare of forms, meetings, and administrative hearings. Even with an attorney involved, the process of correcting problems that arose from DHS’ failure to provide language access in the first place, was daunting and frustrating, and as a result, many families just gave up.

In October 2015, Bread for the City, participating as “of counsel,” joined the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the law firm of Hogan Lovells US LLP in bringing a lawsuit against DHS for its widespread failure to provide language access to its customers.

As a result of the lawsuit, DHS has committed to restructure the way it provides language access and has directed more resources towards this important mandate. It is still a work in progress- just a few weeks ago I filed another language access complaint against DHS on behalf of a Spanish-speaker who was denied interpretation – but overall, we are seeing improvements in the way DHS provides language access.

Maria Amaya Torres, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, reported that when she recently went to DHS to re-certify for food stamps she was greeted in the lobby by a bilingual employee and was interviewed in person in Spanish, for the first time in all her years of going to the agency.

We are pleased to announce that recently, the lawsuit was officially settled! Under the settlement agreement, DHS has agreed to implement a new formal structure to ensure that customers are provided with interpretation at every point of contact with the agency. If a customer is not provided with language access, they will be able to contact a designated Ombudsman at each service center who will immediately come out to assist the customer before they leave the building, both to ensure they receive language access and to resolve any underlying problems with their benefits that resulted from a communication failure.

Additionally, DHS will also establish a Language Access Customer Advisory Group which will monitor DHS’s compliance with the settlement, communicate with ombudsmen at the DHS service center, and advise DHS on language access practices.

We thank Ms. Amaya Torres and Minerva Nolasco, the other plaintiff in the lawsuit, for their courage in fighting for their rights and the rights of others. We are hopeful that once the settlement measures are put into place there will be a real change and an end to the cycle of unnecessary termination and denial of benefits that has impacted too many DC residents who are limited and non-English proficient.

Haga clic aquí para la versión en español.

*Allison Miles-Lee’s work is made possible in part through funds awarded by the DC Bar Foundation.*