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Service Cuts to Spanish Speakers Challenged

WASHINGTON (CN) - Minerva Nolasco was seven months pregnant when she learned her health benefits had been canceled unexpectedly.

Nearly a year earlier, Maria Amaya Torres lost nearly two-thirds of her Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan (SNAP) benefits.

In a class action the women filed Wednesday in D.C. Superior Court, they blame their loss of services on the failure of the district's Department of Human Services to provide them with a translator in meetings, despite knowing that neither spoke English.

The 21-page complaint claims that the Department of Human Services "runs roughshod " over a Washington law that requires agencies to provide language services to people who speak little to no English.

Under the Language Access Act of 2004, D.C. residents who speak a language other than English are entitled to services from public agencies, including translations of document translations and outreach programs. The law also establishes the Office of Human Rights as the judge of agency compliance with the act.

That office found in field tests that the Department of Human Services did not translate critical documents into other languages and refused to provide interpretations to non-English speakers, despite the requirements of the Language Access Act, according to the complaint.

As a result of these failures, the Office of Human Rights scored the Department of Human Services zero out of five for the "quality" of its language-access services in a 2014 report, according to the complaint.

"DHS's failure to provide translation and interpretation services is more than just an inconvenience - it is illegal," the complaint states. "On this point, the law is unequivocal."

Under Washington law, the Department of Human Services must provide people who are either not proficient in English or who don't speak it at all with "oral language services," according to the complaint.

This includes the agency putting bilingual staff in positions that require interacting with the public as well as providing trained staff interpreters either through private telephone services, in-person interpreter services or interpreters provided by community service organizations, according to the complaint.

The class claims the Department of Human Services has ignored these rules for years, forcing people who do not speak English to fill out forms and interact with Department of Human Services employees in something other than their native language.

"The fact that DHS has a 'comprehensive system in place for identifying and tracking [non-English speaking] customers' yet regularly fails to provide language access services demonstrates that DHS's discrimination is intentional," the class claims. "DHS can and does carefully track which residents need translation or interpretation services, but it nonetheless refuses to provide these services to these residents."

Nolasco and Torres note as an example that one Spanish-speaker called the department eight times in one day to ask about her SNAP benefits. Each time she asked for help in Spanish, and each time she was either immediately hung up on or put on hold for 10 to 15 minutes, after which time her call was dropped.

Another woman ended up in tears, according to the complaint, after the department told her could not speak with a Spanish-speaking DHS agent and she later learned that her application for SNAP benefits had never been processed.

"Upon information and belief, this is just the top of the iceberg," the complaint states. "DHS has a track record of failing to provide required translation and interpretation services."

The agency has not improved its language-services access in recent years, despite attention from former interim director Deborah Carroll, according to the complaint.

In addition to the District of Columbia, the class action names Laura Zeilinger, the director of the Department of Human Services, as a defendant.

Closed for the Columbus Day weekend, the Department of Human Services did not respond to a request for comment left Monday.

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