Ongoing challenges for language interpreter services

Posted on 23 March 2017 under Clearinghouse, Tracking & Uncategorized.

A long history of calls to improve interpreting services

Over the years, there have been repeated calls to increase the availability of interpreting services for Aboriginal people living in South Australia. These calls have been included in the recommendations of significant inquiries, such as the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1991); the Children on Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands (Mullighan) Commission of Inquiry (2008); and Justice Nyland’s Child Protection Systems Royal Commission (August 2016).

Part Five of Justice Nyland’s report, ‘The life they deserve’ highlights the importance of interpreter services, the generalised failure to utilise interpreters appropriately, and refers to the Children on Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands (Mullighan) Commission of Inquiry:

The APY Lands Inquiry noted the shortage of suitable interpreters for Aboriginal people in the APY Lands and recommended additional training for interpreters be established as a matter of urgency. Eight years later, the shortage remains.

Practitioners from the Agency do not generally use formal interpreters as part of their daily business. The Commission was told that in many cases, APY residents have ‘reasonable’ English skills’, but if an interpreter is required and requested by the family, practitioners use the interpreter service in Alice Springs or identify a family member to interpret. There is need for caution when using family members as interpreters given the sensitive nature of child protection work and the interconnectedness of many communities.

The South Australian Government would not contemplate sending practitioners to investigate child abuse in a non-English speaking country without reliable access to accredited interpreters. It is unrealistic to expect the Agency’s practitioners to operate in remote communities where English is commonly a second or third language without reliable access to interpreters.

The difficulty in accessing interpreters encourages these practitioners to proceed without an interpreter in cases where they should not. This inevitably produces sub-optimal results.

The draft Interagency Code of Practice: ‘Investigation of Suspected Child Abuse or Neglect’ emphasises the need for Aboriginal people to have access to accredited interpreter services and cautions against using interpreters who have a close familial or cultural relationship to the child or carers. It notes that this may be challenging in some circumstances, but emphasises that ‘the child’s right to a fair and just investigation of their current and future safety must not be compromised by the convenient, but inappropriate use of individual interpreters’. If the code is to be effective, the government should invest in training to increase the number of accredited interpreters in languages used in remote Aboriginal communities, as recommended by the APY Lands Inquiry. It is also important that the interpreters used have specialist training in phrases and concepts relevant to child protection, to enable them to capture the nuances that need to be communicated in sensitive matters that will be raised.

While the Commission is conscious of the limited availability of interpreters, practitioners from the Agency should be supported to use interpreters more often and wherever necessary to assist their work and not to overestimate the English language abilities of people they deal with. They should take particular care to ensure that Aboriginal clients understand the content of safety agreements. As a practical measure, all Agency staff operating on the APY Lands should be trained in working effectively with accredited interpreters and complete training in basic language skills … (p. 472).

Calls for improved interpreting services have also been made by a number of judges and others working in the justice system and community legal services.

National reports about interpreting services

These calls were echoed in a number of reports, including the Federal Government’s National Indigenous Languages Survey Report of 2005 which states that the lack of equality in providing interpreting services for Aboriginal people can have ‘life threatening consequences in health care; can result in miscarriages of justice and many other disadvantages for Indigenous people (p. 90)’.

This was followed with a report released in 2011 by the Commonwealth Ombudsman, Talking in Language – Indigenous Language Interpreters and Government Communication, in response to complaints and observations that Aboriginal language interpreters were not always used when they should have been.

In December 2016, the Commonwealth Ombudsman released a follow-up report, Accessibility of Indigenous Language Interpreters – Talking in Language Follow-up Investigation.

This 2016 report sets out the background to the investigation, provides an analysis of the current situation, five years on from the original report in 2011, and suggests ways to increase Indigenous language interpreter accessibility and use.  CWOmbudsReport

This report indicates that, ‘A coordinated whole of government response is still required. While there has been some progress, ongoing barriers to accessing interpreters continue to undermine communication between government and Indigenous language speakers… (p. 1)’.

The Report indicates that, following the Commonwealth investigation reports, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has established the Commonwealth Inter-Departmental Committee (IDC) for Indigenous Interpreters. It also recommends that the Federal Government takes steps to ensure the finalisation and adoption of the Draft National Indigenous Interpreters Framework (2012).

In March 2017, the Law Council of Australia announced that it is conducting a comprehensive national review – The Justice Project – into the obstacles to accessing justice in Australia, focusing on those facing significant social and economic disadvantage. It is probable that access to interpreting services will also feature in this review.

South Australia Review and Policy Framework

At a State level, in 2010, the Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation Division in the Department of Premier and Cabinet began a review of Aboriginal interpreter services, in part to develop ‘sustainable employment options’ for newly-qualified Anangu interpreters (Letter dated 6 July 2010 from Minister Portolesi to Rev. P. McDonald/Paper Tracker) and as a response to the lack of available and co-ordinated interpreter services.

The review process was out-sourced to an independent consultant and cost $44,000, according to a letter from Mr Jim Hallion (Department of the Premier and Cabinet, dated 31 July 2012, to the Budget and Finance Committee, Parliament of South Australia). The consultant’s final report on the Review, that included key findings and a possible model for the provision of interpreter services, has not been publically released. However, a brief case study summary is available on the Consultant’s website.

Arising from the Review process, a Reference Group was established and co-ordinated by DPC-AARD (now DSD-AAR). This broad-based representative Group included at least three Aboriginal language interpreters; representatives of both State and Commonwealth government departments, including the Department of Premier and Cabinet; Department of Education and Children’s Services; Department of Health; Department of Environment, Water Heritage and the Arts; Department of Families and Communities; Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs;  Department of Further Education, Employment, Science and Technology; Courts Administration Authority; South Australian Police; Department of Correctional Services; University of South Australia; Department of Attorney General; Centrelink; a representative from the Interpreter Translator Centre; and representatives from a number of Aboriginal service organisations such as Ngura Wiru Winkiku Indigenous Corporation, Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement, and Aboriginal Family Violence Legal Services.

The DSD-AAR website and its various listed initiatives, make no reference to: the Review of Aboriginal Languages Interpreter Services in South Australia having been conducted; the terms of reference for this Review; the fact that an across-agency multi-disciplinary Reference Group was established; or to the Review’s key findings. The only reference to this Review is on page five of the South Australian Policy Framework: Aboriginal Languages Interpreters and Translators which can be found under the ‘Publications’ tab on the DSD-AAR website. This Policy Framework had its origins in the Review and was released in February 2014.

The South Australian Policy Framework: Aboriginal Languages Interpreters and Translators states:

‘The development of a whole-of-government policy framework for the provision and use of Aboriginal interpreters and translators in South Australia will contribute to a coordinated government approach to overcoming the language and cultural barriers and disadvantage experienced by many Aboriginal people when accessing services. A whole-of-government policy framework will provide guidance for more appropriate engagement, communication and involvement of Aboriginal people, as well as improved government service design and delivery (p. 5)’.

The Policy Framework’s objectives are:

  • to ensure that South Australian Government agencies and services acknowledge, understand and respond to the need for Aboriginal languages interpreters and translators by Aboriginal people for whom English is a barrier to effective communication and understanding
  • to improve awareness across government and in the community of the availability of Aboriginal languages interpreters and translators for use in communication, consultation and service delivery
  • to assist in the development of an effective, coordinated Aboriginal languages interpreting and translating system that is readily accessible to Aboriginal people and State Government agencies and services
  • to apply minimum standards across government agencies and government services regarding the provision of Aboriginal languages interpreters and translators
  • to reduce the disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal people for whom English and/or culture is a barrier in communicating and consulting with government agencies and services (pp 6-7).

Oversight and implementation of the SA Policy Framework

As part of creating awareness about the Policy Framework and its application, DSD-AAR has produced An Interpreters and Translators Guide.  guide

The governance arrangements for the oversight and implementation of the Policy Framework are stated in section 3.4 of the Framework: ‘DPC-AARD (now DSD-AAR) will have oversight of the policy; however implementation is the responsibility of State Government agencies and departments. Implementation issues and progress reporting will be tabled for discussion at the Senior Officers Group on Aboriginal Affairs (SOGAA). SOGAA will be utilised to ensure adequate across government involvement and to escalate significant issues to the Chief Executives Group on Aboriginal Affairs (CEGAA) as necessary (p. 7)’.

Section 5 of the Policy Framework states that, ‘Successful application of the policy framework will, in large part, be determined by the level of agency commitment to its vision and objectives. DPC-AARD’s oversight of the framework’s implementation and the support provided by SOGAA will be used to ensure consistent application of the policy, clear lines of accountability and responsibility, and transparent governance arrangements (p.11)’.

Given the nature of these monitoring and implementation mechanisms, in the event that there is an absence of ‘agency commitment’ – already identified in the Review as a major weakness in the uptake of interpreter services – and in the absence of clear monitoring criteria and indicators as to what constitutes DPC-AARD’s ‘oversight of the framework’s implementation’, the danger exists that this Policy Framework may not be adequately implemented or adhered to.

The Anangu Lands Paper Tracker has been monitoring the availability and uptake of interpreter services for a number of years. The following radio interviews highlight the importance of the role of interpreters and the availability of accessible interpreter services:

  • Interview with Louise MacLeod, Senior Assistant Ombudsman in the Social Services, Indigenous and Disability Branch of the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman, regarding the 2016 Commonwealth Ombudsman Report – Accessibility of Indigenous Language Interpreters – Talking in Language Follow-up Investigation

The problem persists

In spite of the repeated calls and formalised recommendations arising from a number of Commissions and reviews, and in the face of the identification of a critical need and demand in South Australia for interpreting services for Aboriginal people, and the fact that a Policy Framework has been developed and is apparently being implemented, the problem persists.

This is evidenced by claims that some Aboriginal people are being kept in custody for longer than required because of a lack of interpreters; that hospital patients frequently do not have access to an interpreter; that an offender from a community in South Australia’s APY Lands, who was accused of murder, recently pleaded guilty without access to an interpreter; that some cases are remanded while the services of an interpreter are found; that there are instances of children being removed without parents being supported by interpreters during child protection investigation and assessment processes.

If you would like to read an earlier post on this website about interpreter services, click here.










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