Raleigh Lawyer Calls for Expansion of Language Services to All Aspects of Delinquency Court

A recent experience made me question why there are not language services in all aspects of delinquency court for juveniles and parents.

A child was charged with two misdemeanors. He is raised by his single mother and he has several brothers. Although his mother is not fluent in English, she can understand the gist of things. She cannot read English. A juvenile court counselor meets with the child and mother and uses his discretion to divert his charges without additional court intervention, instead of filing the petition and involving them in the court system. By diverting the case, the charges would have been dismissed if the child adhered to certain requirements.

I will say this: This decision was a great use of discretion. As mentioned in the Executive Summary of the study “Case Studies of Nine Jurisdictions That Reduced DMC in Their Juvenile Justice Systems” in 2014:

“Across the United States, youths of color are more likely than their white peers to be arrested and referred to juvenile court. After becoming involved in the juvenile justice system, they are also more likely to go deeper into the system, resulting in a higher likelihood of secure detainment, confinement, and transfer to adult court. Minority youths are also less likely to be diverted from court. This phenomenon, known as disproportionate minority contact (DMC), has been recognized for decades as a deep-rooted problem in the juvenile justice system.” https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/grants/250301.pdf.

So What Went Wrong?

I became involved seven months later. Where were we now? Formal charges were filed against the child. His mother comes to our office scared of what might happen and what went wrong. She tried her best to stay in contact with the court counselor. It was difficult, with a full time job and raising her children, but she tried. I talked to the child. His only two questions: “Are they going to take me away from my mom? And “Am I going to juvie?”

I wondered why the counselor decided to file charges after diverting the case. It did not make sense to me, until I met with the counselor.

The day before the child’s court date, I spoke to the counselor. Her main reason was a lack of communication on behalf of the mother. The counselor sent her a final letter saying please contact me or else I will have to refer the case to court. She showed me the letter.

I understand why the counselor chose to file charges. She has a job to do and if she does not hear from the parents, she has no idea what is going on. But there was another option

What Could Have Solved Everything?

A letter, translated into the mother’s primary language. That’s it. We could have avoided my involvement. The State could have saved thousands of dollars by not having to spend money to involve the district attorney, the judge, and all the other things needed to run a courtroom. We could have avoided traumatizing a mother and her child. All of this could have been avoided by having a translator take fifteen minutes to translate the letter the counselor sent to the mother.

When I asked the mother about the letter, she said it was in English and she could not read it. She got one of her children to read it to her and it seems like they mis-translated it. The child told her that the case was closed. So the mother was under the impression that the case was going to be closed.

Charges were filed because the court system did not provide a translated letter. Charges were filed because a mother had to depend on a child’s translation of a court letter.

We, as a society, can do better.

Language Services Needed Everywhere, Not Just Court Hearings

This experience showed me how we can do better. When children are involved, language services should be provided for them and their parents. From the first court counselor meeting until the last, language services should be provided so everyone understands each other.

Let’s not let an untranslated letter get in the way of fair and equitable treatment of everyone.