Interpreters and child protection work
Working with sign language interpreters in safeguarding and child protection has 4 key consequences for social work practice.
Out of sync
In an interpreted interaction, there’s always a delay of around 1.5 seconds: what’s said/signed is out of sync with the child’s facial expressions, body language and demeanour. As social workers, we rely on an accurate sense of the “whole person” not just what they say. The same is true the other way round; the child’s sense of the professional is filtered by similar mismatches between how you look and what you say.
Sign language interpreters are highly skilled professionals who undergo years of training. They’re required to be registered and maintain their registration with a national body (this is not true of most community spoken language interpreters). However, many sign language interpreters will be totally unused to working in safeguarding and child protection situations. They may understand the vocabulary, but not the intent and underlying meaning of terms common to social work. This affects how those words are interpreted and can easily lead to misunderstanding. It’s very important for social workers and interpreters to spend time together preparing, sharing concepts with a particular meaning, given the context, and to feel comfortable working together.
It’s highly likely that sign language interpreters will be more familiar with deaf culture than most social workers. They understand the social, linguistic and cultural context that underpins the deaf community’s world-view. For example, if you asked a deaf child what time it was when a particular incident happened, the child might reply by showing you where the sun was in the sky. You may conclude the child doesn’t know how to tell the time: someone with cultural competence understands that this visual representation will be highly accurate because of the specificity of a signed language and a deaf child’s enhanced visual spatial abilities. This illustrates that an interpreter isn’t simply a conduit of language exchange - that’s an out-dated approach. Increasingly, a model of the sign language interpreter as a practice professional is being adopted. The interpreter is part of the team and may act as cultural broker, ensuring optimal understanding and participation. From this viewpoint we’re “working with” a practice professional, rather than “using” an interpreter.
Prioritising direct interaction
It’s important to ask whether an assessment or interaction is better without a third party. Do you think a deaf child would rather sign directly to a trusted individual, or have a third party in the room to facilitate communication with someone who has never interacted with a deaf child before? Even when a deaf child can use spoken language, it’s important to consider if this is the method of communication they’re most comfortable with. Often, deaf children try to match the needs of the person they’re communicating with, rather than using their own preferred means of expression. This is not an empowering position for a deaf child or young person. There are skilled social work professionals out there, many of whom are deaf, using BSL with high-level bilingual and bicultural skills – and direct, rather than mediated communication, may be better when a deaf child is involved in a safeguarding concern.