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Lost In Translation: A Growing Need For Interpreters In Hartford

As she was raising children with mental health needs, Milagros Vega learned how to access multiple services in Hartford. She moved to the city from Puerto Rico 25 years ago. Now she’s caring for a grandson with similar needs. 

Speaking in Spanish, she said that when her grandson is in crisis he can become violent. She recalled calling the Hartford Police Department to intervene and calm him down or take him to a nearby hospital.  

“Cuando él le da la crisis se pone violento, pues yo llamo para que o lo tranquilicen o se lo lleven a un hospital.” 

The police arrived, but the tension only increased.  

She said that you need to be brave to seek help for someone you care for with mental illness. One moment of anger or frustration could have lethal consequences if there is no immediate help available. Because of this, Vega said she’s now less likely to call the police. 

“Si tú vas a buscar ayuda para personas que tú tienes con salud mental, tú sabes que un coraje tan fuerte. Puede pasar algo si no le dan asistencia pronto. Pues para eso yo no los llamo.” 

For their part, the police say they recognize the challenge. The mayor’s office estimates that from September 2019 to August 2020, nearly 3,000 calls to the Hartford Police Department were related to situations involving people with emotional or mental health needs. 

Hartford Police Lt. Aaron Boisvert said the department also has a language line available, so callers can access necessary resources in any language. 

“As far as Spanish specifically, every single time there’s a dispatcher or 911 center to speak Spanish, just like almost every time there’s an officer out there that can assist on the street if we need Spanish speaking.” 

When responding to crises, Boisvert said officers are often part of a crisis intervention team. HPD works with the Capitol Region Mental Health Center, “... who works just about every day, who specifically respond to people in mental crisis situations. They monitor our radios to respond to certain incidents where we think they'd be beneficial.” 

Milagros Vega works with Hartford Parent University, an organization that helps families better engage with their children’s schools. She speaks English but sees an urgent need for more interpreters because she works with many parents who do not. 

Census data from 2019 show that 43% of Hartford’s residents speak a language other than English at home. In Hartford’s school district nearly 55% of students identify as Hispanic or Latino. 

According to the mayor’s office, the necessity of increasing Spanish language resources has been a priority throughout the pandemic when there was a critical need to ensure the right messages were getting across to all communities. 

Hartford officials worked with the marketing agency Latino Way to produce bilingual information. CEO Maria Lino agreed that interpreters are more vital than ever. Speaking in Spanish, she said that for someone with limited fluency in English the ability to navigate the medical, social services and court systems is limited.  

“En el sistema médico, en el sistema de servicios sociales, en el sistema de corte, super limitado con una persona que no domina el idioma.” 

Lino adds that the pandemic has left many Spanish-speaking residents even more susceptible to encountering language barriers when accessing health and social services in the city. 

Recently, Hartford City Hall has begun hosting Town Halls completely in Spanish to better engage with Latino residents. 

But for now, Milagros Vega said she is still finding ways to avoid calling law enforcement in times of crisis. 

Brenda León is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Brenda covers the Latino/a, Latinx community with an emphasis on wealth-based disparities in health, education and criminal justice.

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