Help wanted: State is hunting for interpreters

April 08, 1992|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

Eva Feliciano, an unemployed Puerto Rican woman in Highlandtown, made three trips to a social services office before she qualified for welfare benefits for her 11-year-old daughter. And it took a letter from City Hall to finally get the job done.

"It was a question of communication, a language problem," Mrs. Feliciano, 46, said in Spanish. She reads English well but speaks it haltingly.

No one in the welfare office could read the Spanish-language documents that she presented to buttress her claim for eligibility, she said.

Faced with a rapidly growing number of Hispanic clients like Mrs. Feliciano, the state Department of Human Resources (DHR) is planning for the first time to actively recruit bilingual employees.

With help from the Governor's Commission on Hispanic Affairs, DHR has won approval from the state Department of Personnel to speed up recruitment of bilingual people for merit system jobs, said Helen Szablya, a DHR spokeswoman. Recruiting is due to begin later this year, but it is unclear now how many employees will be hired.

"Our first push will be for Spanish-speaking candidates," Ms. Szablya said. "When someone comes to the desk and says 'Hola!' we need someone who can find out what they need before they sit in the office two hours waiting to see a caseworker.

"Other needs include Vietnamese and Cambodian speakers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties," she said.

The number of Hispanic and Asian households receiving food stamps -- an indicator of social services needs -- is growing even faster than the burgeoning state caseload as a whole.

From 1988 to 1991, Hispanic households getting food stamps jumped by 38 percent to 1,414 and Asian households by 46 percent to 1,703, DHR says. They were still only a tiny part of the total state caseload, which grew by 27 percent to more than 131,000.

While the Washington suburbs account for most of the Hispanic and Asian clients, a significant number of families who don't speak English as a first language are receiving food stamps in Baltimore and in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.

The Rev. Miguel E. Vilar, minister to a Spanish-speaking Episcopal congregation in Canton, said he spends much of his time interpreting for parishioners at government offices and running a ministry for Hispanic inmates at the city jail.

"That's the main problem we have -- language," Rev. Vilar said. "In key agencies like housing, employment or social services we don't have bilingual staff."

Puerto Ricans like Mrs. Feliciano are U.S. citizens and have the right to get government help, but many can't speak English, he said. Many Latin Americans are legal U.S. residents or under "temporary protective status" and eligible for some aid. The language barrier often stymies them.

As a result, Rev. Vilar and the Rev. Peter Rosa, a Lutheran vicar in Canton, plan to set up a telephone "help line" to serve Baltimore area Hispanics.

The need for bilingual personnel also extends to areas such as Howard County and the Eastern Shore, say local advocates for immigrants.

Barrie Klaits, assistant director of the non-profit Foreign-born Information Referral Network in Columbia, said an influx of Mexican, Vietnamese and Haitian immigrants keeps her agency scrambling to find volunteer interpreters.

Ms. Klaits, a member of the Governor's Commission on Hispanic Affairs, said she hopes the DHR model of recruiting bilingual staff will spread to health clinics, police departments and jails, where communication problems are endemic.

Julia Foxwell, a Panama-born member of the Wicomico County Council, said she often interprets for Spanish-speaking migrant workers on the Eastern Shore.

"I agree they should learn English, and I do my best to help them improve," she said. "But I just think it's important that at some level there is communication. If there isn't, sometimes innocent people suffer."

Ms. Foxwell recalled the case of a young Mexican who spent six months in a Shore jail because of a case of mistaken identity. If she hadn't stumbled across the case, the man might have been held even longer, she said.

When he was released, "The judge's words were, 'Now you have a credit,' " she said.

Montgomery County, which is home to nearly half of Maryland's Hispanics and Asians, has made a concerted effort in the last few years to hire bilingual staff, said Judith Unger, personnel officer for the county's Department of Social Services.

Hispanics made up 9 percent and Asians 14 percent of Montgomery's food-stamp caseload in September 1991, the most recent figures available.

Certified multilingual employees, including five staff members fluent in Spanish and five in Vietnamese, receive extra pay from county funds, Ms. Unger said. Even so, requests for interpreters who couldn't be provided on the spot have come in this fiscal year from clients who speak Cambodian, Creole, Farsi, Hindi, Italian, Korean, Lao, Russian and Spanish. One hearing-impaired Spanish-speaker needed sign language help.

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