Even after nearly twenty years of teaching English as a Second language at the Lodi Adult School, I am still taken aback when a new student comes to enroll bringing her minor child to interpret for her.
The children provide the basic information about their non-English speaking parents—address, telephone number and emergency contacts. In some cases, the children fill out the registration form.
These are among the most commonly spoken foreign languages in California. But ready translators are not always available.
Using minor English-speaking children to help parents get through their daily lives is a well-recognized and mostly innocuous fact of life in California when the setting is a school, the motor vehicle department or city hall.
But the stakes are quite different if the child is translating in a doctor's office or clinic.
San Francisco Assemblyman Leland Yee, a Chinese-American, has introduced Assembly Bill 292 that would ban the use of child interpreters in medical and counseling settings.
According to Yee, his bill
"would help keep children out of traumatic situations and would ensure that limited English speakers and their family members receive equal medical care or quality service from their government without errors due to inadequate interpretation."
Yee, who has a doctorate in child psychology from the University of Hawaii, also contends that his bill would:
"ensure that limited English speakers and their family members receive equal medical care or quality service from their government without errors due to inadequate interpretation."
If Yee's bill becomes law, California would be the first state to pass such far-reaching restrictions.
But AB 292, which passed the assembly and will soon be considered by the Senate, will face many passionate arguments from both sides of the fence.
Yee has strong supporters. For one, the San Francisco General Hospital general clinic medical director is concerned that young children can suffer severe emotional damage if they are the first to learn about a parents' serious illness and must then deliver the tragic news.
Said Dr. Alice Chen:
"If they are the ones telling their mom she has cervical cancer, that's a problem. I've seen kids walk away thinking they've caused it."
[California Seeks to Stop the Use of Child Medical Interpreters, Associated Press, October 30, 2005]
But on the other hand, there is the practical question of who will translate if the children don't? California has a chronic shortage of translators. In some cases, where rarely spoken dialects are involved, court cases have been delayed for days. ["Language Barriers Put Courts to Test," Jose Arballo, Jr., Riverside Press-Enterprise, December 17, 2001]
And the expense is no small matter. Hospitals are extremely concerned about absorbing still additional costs. Typically, an interpreter earns about $300 a day and about $165 for a half day…more for the obscure languages.
In California, where two families out of five do not speak English at home, the aggregate expense of translating could be astronomical.
In fact, the California Association of Health Plans estimates that the costs could reach $15 million annually for family doctors alone.
Leanne Gassaway, the association's vice president of legal and regulatory affairs said:
"We discourage the use of children, but in an emergency they may be the only resource you have."
And in an ominous note for citizens already reeling from ever-increasing health care costs, Gassaway added:
"You can't just add $15 million to the system and not expect premiums to go up for everyone."
Most significantly, Yee's bill could drive small practitioners out of business.
As Tom Riley, director of government relations at the California Academy of Family Physicians, told Associated Press reporter Garance Burke:
"You may be the doc in the trenches doing all the right things, caring for a diverse limited-English-proficient population but you could be hit by this bill in a way that you cannot economically survive"
[Citing Medical Errors, California Seeks to Ban Child Interpreters, Garance Burke, Associated Press, October 24, 2004]
In 21st Century California, it is not practical—or even possible—to have legislation that covers every possible language contingency.
No one would be served if AB 292 were enacted but then put small family doctors—the very type who frequently treat non-English speakers—out of business.
Many of the non-English speakers have lived in the U.S. for a decade or more. Even if they have not learned English, the chances are still good that someone in their family or circle of friends has.
Would it not be possible for non-English speakers to carry a card in their wallet or purse that identifies an emergency contact who does speak English? In any crisis, that person could be summoned immediately.
As simple as that sounds, it may be the answer. At the very least, the ID card is a starting point.