Language proves a barrier to helping victims
July 7, 2015
Each time the Park City police are summoned to investigate domestic violence or sexual assault cases, someone from the department’s victim advocate program is called.
Everyone usually speaks English, and either the program’s full-time coordinator Malena Stevens or one of her trained volunteers guides the assault victims through the sometimes confusing maze of how police officers must investigate those allegations.
But increasingly, Stevens and her volunteers are finding difficulty communicating with their victims. That’s because some of the victims are part of the growing Latino community in Park City, and their first language is Spanish.
"We have a sizable Latino population in Park City," said Stevens, who has run the program since October 2013. "The majority of clients are English-speaking, but we’re starting to have more and more Spanish-speaking clients."
That’s why one of her main goals for the upcoming year is to not only improve her high school Spanish but also find more volunteers to assist those whose English is either a second language or non-existent.
Being able to talk to a victim of a crime especially sexual assault or domestic violence in Spanish would help both volunteers and victims, she said. Speaking through interpreters or other methods is not the same as speaking in a native language. Usually the victims have met extreme trauma. Explaining themselves clearly or answering investigators’ questions grows difficult when filtered through the language barrier.
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"When you’re going through something very emotional, a second language doesn’t cut it. You can’t always express what you need to express," said Stevens, who emphasizes that victims in these cases are usually experiencing "the worst day of their lives."
"I think it’s different (speaking in a second language) and they are less willing to open up about what is going on and we’re less able to help," she said.
The entire department is aware of Park City’s demographics, and finding more Spanish-speaking volunteers is "a huge part of what we’re trying to accomplish," said police chief Wade Carpenter.
"Probably 25 percent of our community is Hispanic and so we’re very aware of that. Our department should represent a community that we police," he said.
Overall, he has seen the victim advocate program have a positive impact on the department.
"I think what’s happened is it’s created a relationship between the officers and the community to where we’re getting immediate attention back to the victims of these violent crimes, where we’re able to give them the resources they need," he said.
Program coordinator Stevens and her volunteers do more than just help victims at the time of the incident. They follow up the next day and will often walk victims through the judicial process, sometimes helping them obtain court orders and even accompanying them on court dates. A language barrier complicates Stevens’ efforts to help.
"Sometimes they (victims) just don’t understand why the police are doing the things they are doing. I found out that when we were called out (and even if the victim didn’t want the services) there was a problem with trying to contact the victims after the fact," she said.
She works with community groups, especially The Peace House Bilingual Outreach program, to ensure the victims receive all the assistance they want. It’s not ideal, she said.
"It’s just a lot more complicated and difficult for us to do it that way than if we had volunteers who were ready and able to do it already. Those people are still being served, it’s just not as seamless as it could be. (It’s) a lot more difficult for everybody than it would be otherwise."
To add bilingual volunteers, Stevens has reached out to groups around town.
The program began three years ago, but the victim advocate position had lain vacant for several months when Stevens took over in October 2013. She began recruiting more volunteers so her program could run at all hours.
Although she is called out on many cases, the department policy says either she or one of her volunteers goes to every domestic violence and sexual assault case. Throughout the state, one of three women will be a victim of sexual assault. Similar statistics cover domestic violence.
Closer to home, the Park City police has responded to 25 incidents of domestic violence alone in the past six months, assisting 50 victims. During that same period, police also were called to 11 sexual assaults.
Although Stevens cannot quantify how many victims of these two specific crimes spoke only Spanish, she did say that of the 85 overall victims her program assisted within the last six months, one of eight were strictly Spanish speaking.
"With those stats so high, it becomes necessary that we’re going out and supporting victims, both men and women, to make sure these cycles are not repeated."
To volunteer for the victim advocate program, contact Malena Stevens at 615-5575 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.