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Advocates in Suffolk seek better services for foreign speakers

Suffolk County legislators, seen in 2016, are considering

Suffolk County legislators, seen in 2016, are considering a bill that would codify into law an executive order issued by Steve Bellone that requires county agencies to provide access to a translation phone service for non-English speakers. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Foreign language speakers phoning Suffolk County offices last year were hung up on, laughed at, and in the case of one participant, called a derogatory name and told to go back to her country, advocates told legislators Tuesday as they considered a bill mandating translation services at county offices.

Advocates speaking Spanish and Urdu made the “test” calls last year after non-English speakers complained they were turned away from accessing county services, including filing police reports and applying for social service benefits.

The bill would codify into law a 2012 executive order issued by County Executive Steve Bellone that requires county agencies to provide access to a translation phone service for non-English speakers, and translate key documents into six languages.

“It is disturbing this was signed in 2012 and we’re not in full compliance,” said Cheryl Keshner, coordinator for the Long Island Language Advocates Coalition and community advocate of the Central Islip-based Empire Justice Center. The bill would also expand the language-access requirements to other countywide elected officials, including the Suffolk Sheriff’s office, which runs the jail.

She said group members made 88 calls from August to December, asking basic questions of how to access services. The calls frequently went to voicemail without non-English language instructions. They were answered by a person 52 times; connected to a language line 14 times, and directed to bilingual staff on 16 occasions. The other 22 times, the callers did not receive services, Keshner said.

She credited Bellone for the executive order, but said the results show the need for more oversight.

In an August call to the Suffolk police department’s 7th Precinct, one woman asked in Spanish the time of the next community meeting. The person who answered called the woman an expletive and told her to go back to her own country, said Dulce Rojas, eastern Suffolk community organizer for SEPA Mujer, which provides immigration services for women who are victims of assault and domestic violence.

The coalition reported the results of its survey to the U.S. Department of Justice, which is monitoring the Suffolk County Police Department under a consent decree for discrimination practices toward Latino communities, Rojas and Keshner said.

Outside Tuesday’s meeting, Acting Suffolk Police Commissioner Stuart Cameron said the woman’s complaint would be investigated and many of the lines are recorded.

“By and large our officers are professional,” he said. “If it occurred, the officer absolutely would be punished and disciplined for it.”

He said officers have had or are undergoing training on identifying hate crimes and improving language access to non-English speakers. New tablets being distributed in police vehicles will also easily connect non-English speakers with translators.

County Executive spokesman Jason Elan said Bellone supports the legislation and “will work with her to expand all aspects of this program including training and public awareness.”

A county official said the administration became aware of the August incident last month and is “looking into this.”

“That’s a disgraceful and disgusting thing you’re saying one of our officers said,” Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), the Republican minority leader, told the advocates.

Martinez, the bill sponsor, said the legislative body needs to look into the allegations further.

“I will continue to work with advocates and community groups to make sure incidents such as these don’t happen again,” she said. She asked community members to file complaints when incidents like this occur.

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