A Mobile Language Line for Domestic Violence Victims

Posted by CorinneRamey on Feb 11, 2008

Claire Joyce Tempongko, a Filipina immigrant, was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in front of her two young children five years ago. Tempongko had repeatedly tried to get help from state services -- she had called the police before, and her ex-boyfriend had been in jail for domestic violence -- but she was murdered despite the involvement of various services.

Immigrants like Tempongko repeatedly face language and cultural barriers to getting help from domestic abuse. Tempongko's murder was one of the factors that eventually led to a new translation program which was recently implemented by the city of San Francisco in California in the western United States. The new program brings translation services to non-English speaking victims of domestic violence in over 170 languages, all via mobile phone.

Jill Tregor, a Senior Policy Analyst with the San Francisco Department on the Status of Women, sat down with MobileActive for an interview.

In response to the Tempongko murder, the Department on the Status of Women created the Justice and Courage Oversight Panel. "The Panel's charge was to identify what the gaps were in criminal response to domestic violence," Jill said. A report issued by the panel eventually led to the creation of the interpretation program which uses a commercial vendor, Language Line, and mobile phones donated by AT&T.

"One main recommendation of the panel focused on language access. A victim of domestic violence who didn't speak English as a primary language was meeting barrier after barrier in trying to get help," said Jill. She said that although face-to-face interpreters would have been ideal, the Language Line program has proved to a be a good temporary solution. There are over 100 languages spoken in the city of San Francisco with the most common languages Spanish and Cantonese. Other common languages include Russian, Vietnamese, Cambodia, Korean, and Mongolian. According to Jill, about 30% of the population of San Francisco are immigrants.

As part of the program, AT&T donated 125 mobile phones. The phones are assigned to various city departments, and police officers take the phones with them when they respond to domestic violence calls. When a domestic violence victim doesn't speak English, the officer calls Language Line Services, which then provides a translator in any of 170 different languages. The officer and non-English speaker then pass the phone back and forth, with the Language Line staff person interpreting between their respective languages.

Although the city of San Francisco doesn't have definite numbers yet on how many people have used the service, Jill said the response has, for the most part, been positive. "Clients are having positive experiences so far. To me, that's really the important part," she said.

Jill emphasized that although the mobile phone program is making translation services available for domestic violence victims, it's neither a solution to the problem for violence nor the the much preferred face-to-face translation. "It's an interim solution," she said. "But in the meantime, a cop out in the field can just call the service."

One of the problems with translation over the phone, said Jill, is that conversations about sensitive subjects such as abuse are often comprised. Gestures and facial expressions are as important as words, especially when culture is part of the equation. "There is so much more in the interaction than just the words," said Jill. But for now, the Language Line mobile phone program is a big step in the right direction.

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