Family Members are not Interpreters: In the news recently, the Tennessee House and Senate are considering a controversial bill (SB0594 and HB0672) that could impact how investigators communicate with Deaf children who may have experienced domestic abuse or child abuse. At first glance, the bill appears well-intentioned. The intention is to ensure that in abuse cases, family members do not act as interpreters for a Deaf child or sibling. This is appropriate. The interpreter should not be anyone who could have something at stake in the case. A parent who is interpreting might try to protect a guilty spouse by not relaying information accurately. A parent or sibling who lacks fluency in American Sign Language may not even understand what the Deaf child is saying, much less interpret with any level of accuracy. These are just two of many reasons why family members should never interpret in domestic abuse or child abuse investigations. This part of the bill gets it right.
Electronic Means of Interpretation: The bill gets it very wrong on several other counts, however. First, it specifies that the interpretation can be done via electronic means. This could mean video remote interpreting (VRI), which would involve the Deaf child watching and talking to an interpreter who is not present in the room, but working from another location and visible on a computer screen. This is not appropriate. An abuse investigation is highly stressful for the child, has legal ramifications, and requires a live interpreter in the room who is able to communicate with the child at the child’s level, mentally and physically. Even worse than VRI, the bill’s mention of an electronic medium of interpretation could mean typed English. No Deaf child undergoing an abuse investigation should be expected to communicate in a second language, period.
Certified AND Qualified Interpreters: Third, the bill notes that the interpreting may be done using an interpreter who is “trained” in ASL. It states that the interpreter may be a volunteer. No on both counts. Any interpreter working in this type of situation must be a certified professional interpreter, preferably one who has both legal and mental health training. Certification alone, however, is not enough. There must be oversight and validation of the interpreter’s credentials and qualifications by Deaf professionals and community members. It is unethical to leave the determination of who is qualified to interpret up to an individual or agency with no professional credibility in this area. Ideally, a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI) will be available as well, to facilitate communication. The best person to understand and communicate with a Deaf child in this situation is often another Deaf person whose first language is ASL and who understands the nuances of children’s signing. An even more ideal solution is to hire Deaf investigators and social workers who can work directly with the Deaf child, reducing the need for interpreters and the complications involved.
Compounding Trauma: As mental health professionals, we cannot condone the Tennessee bill. It needs to be rewritten, with more precise language specifying requirements for certified interpreters and CDIs in cases involving Deaf children and suspected domestic abuse or child abuse. More attention needs to be paid to behind-the-scenes moves of companies such as sComm, which sells the UbiDuo2, a device for typed communication. sComm may be promoting self-interest in advocating for passage of this bill. If the bill passes, Deaf children stand to experience additional trauma as a result of inadequate interpreting access, on top of any trauma they may have already experienced. The system must protect Deaf children, not set them up for additional emotional and mental abuse.