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Experiment Faults D.C.'s Welfare Guidance

Human Services Agency More Often Failed Spanish Speakers, Rights Group Says

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 31, 2005; Page B02

A small experiment sponsored by a Latino civil rights organization found that people seeking welfare benefits in the District were given inadequate guidance by city employees on several occasions and that the people in the experiment who did not speak English more frequently faced such shortcomings in service.

Under the law, agencies that receive federal money are required to ensure that people who speak little or no English have access to essential services, such as welfare and Medicaid -- a substantial mandate for such regions as Washington that have relatively new but rapidly growing immigrant populations.

Administrator Kate Jesberg said an experiment to evaluate the performance of the D.C. Department of Human Services suffers from flawed research.

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The report on the experiment, commissioned by the National Council of La Raza and conducted by the Equal Rights Center, is to be released today. The experiment was intended to evaluate the performance of the D.C. Department of Human Services, which administers income assistance and other programs for the poor.

If verified, the agency's failings described in the report could be violations of the law. But the small number of encounters evaluated -- 10 involving Spanish-speaking applicants and 10 involving English-speaking applicants -- make it difficult to draw conclusions about the overall performance of the agency or to project how often the problem surfaces.

Kate Jesberg, who heads the department's Income Maintenance Administration, acknowledged that the agency's record is not perfect. But she said the research done for La Raza was flawed and hardly a reasonable basis for the organization's threat to take legal action against the city.

"We have the building blocks in place," she said. "Does that mean you achieve perfection 100 percent of the time? Unfortunately, it does not, which is why we have ongoing monitoring efforts."

Denise Gilman of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, which helped analyze and publicize the study, said failing to deal properly with even one applicant violates the law. It is "absolutely mandatory" to serve people in their own language, she said.

Like many other organizations with similar needs, the human services department has a contract with a translation services company to provide an interpreter in any of 140 languages by telephone. But employees have not always accessed those services when the need arose, according to the government, as well as its critics.

Last year, the District passed a law that requires all city agencies -- not just those that receive federal money -- to comply with the federal civil rights law that makes a failure to provide language services to people seeking government help an act of national origin discrimination.

The experiment's 10 tests -- each comparing the experiences of a Spanish-speaking applicant and an English-speaking applicant -- were conducted in fall 2003, before the new law spurred the District to step up its compliance with the federal mandate. Some of the tests were face to face; others were by telephone. A subsequent round of 17 more limited tests, all by telephone, were conducted late last year. The study's sponsors said the results confirmed that the problems were continuing.

The findings of the research by La Raza and the Equal Rights Center suggest that the department has not always met the mandates of the law.

The experiment was based on five criteria:

Was the person provided services in the appropriate language? Was the person given a program application or told how to obtain one in the appropriate language? Was information provided on required supporting documentation in the appropriate language? Was the person asked information unrelated to eligibility requirements? And did the person receive discouraging comments?

On the first and most fundamental question, researchers found that seven of the 10 Spanish speakers were served in Spanish and three were not.

On other questions, the results for Spanish speakers were poorer, but they were often also poor for English speakers, suggesting a more widespread service problem at the department.

For example, three of the 10 Spanish speakers were offered an application or told how to obtain one, and six of the 10 English speakers were offered an application or told how to obtain.

Overall, the examiners found that the service provided to eight of the 10 Spanish speakers did not meet one or more of the standards. Among English speakers, four of the 10 encountered such problems.

Jesberg said she believes that staffing shortages and a substandard service culture -- rather than prejudice -- are to blame. In June, the agency conducted its own examination of language services, Jesberg said, and found that some employees were not fulfilling the agency's obligation. So hundreds of employees were sent for re-training to try to avoid the sort of problems that the report alleges.

"Theoretically, could it have been discrimination?" Jesberg said. "I can't say no, but knowing that we have all these other operational realities, I'm not persuaded that it is -- not at all."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company