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Wanted in southeastern Connecticut and beyond: Spanish-speaking employees

New London attorney Marcy Levine-Acevedo wonders if her 18-year-old client would be alive today if more substance abuse treatment programs provided services for women whose primary language is Spanish.

Lucia Castro had been granted asylum from Guatemala only to die in November of a suspected drug overdose in Willimantic, according to Levine-Acevedo. Lt. Douglas Glode of the Willimantic Police Department said toxicology tests are being done to determine Castro's cause of death.

She married at a young age with her mother's permission. Then her husband was deported to Guatemala and she lost custody of her children to the Department of Children and Families. She worked at a farm in the area and had been staying in a shelter until moving into an apartment just before her death. She had been willing to get help for her substance abuse problem so that she could get her children back, but Levine-Acevedo said the DCF couldn't find a program for females whose first language is Spanish.

Castro's story illustrates what social services providers say is an urgent need to recruit more staff who speak Spanish. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that in 2018, people of Hispanic or Latino origin made up 10.9 percent of the population in New London County. The number could be higher, as the Census Bureau considers these populations difficult to count.

The demand for bilingual employees in all sectors increased dramatically nationwide over the past 20 years, according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Locally, the demand is particularly strong in the social services sector.

Castro spoke some English, but Levine-Acevedo said to benefit fully from a rehabilitation program, she would have needed to do the work in Spanish.

"A lot of these places don't have clinicians or employees who speak Spanish, which would allow the clients to fully integrate into the program," Levine-Acevedo said. "The requirements are group therapy and all those things, and if you don't have a group leader or therapist who speaks Spanish, that prevents them from participating."

Lee-Ann Gomes, human services director for Norwich, said Spanish is the No. 1 language her department needs help with, and that for the first time, she recently hired a Spanish-speaking employee. Gomes and other providers said there is a phone service available for interpreting all languages, but it's expensive. 

Norwich Comptroller Joshua A. Pothier recently approved creation of a list of city employees willing to interpret for different departments, according to Gomes. She recently called on a city worker to help her converse with an elderly Peruvian woman who had misunderstood the terms of her lease and been evicted.

Students who speak English along with their native language also have been helpful. For three years, the city had bilingual interns from Norwich Free Academy working at various jobs throughout the city, but Gomes said the funding for that ran out.

"The idea was to get department heads used to working with people from different cultures, and to get people from different cultures to work with department heads," Gomes said.

Norwich's international population includes Peruvians, Haitians and Asian speakers of Mandarin and Cantonese, people of Cape Verdean descent who speak a mix of Portuguese and African dialects, as well as a growing population of Tibetans, according to Gomes.

While many attempt to communicate in English, sometimes idioms and other linguistic nuances can lead to misunderstandings.

"My mom worked at Norwich State Hospital for a long time, and there were a lot of foreign doctors," Gomes said. "A person said, 'I have butterflies in my stomach,' and the doctor said, 'She's psychotic.' Big mistakes can be made if you're misinterpreting."

Jeanne Milstein, New London's director of human services, said that in her city, Spanish-speaking people are available to help when needed.

"But in terms of services everywhere, we certainly need more teachers, more mental health workers and people working in hospitals and nonprofits who speak Spanish," Milstein said.

About one-third of the 7,053 victims of domestic violence served by New London-based Safe Futures in 2019 were of Latino origin or of mixed origin including Latino, according to Katherine Verano, the agency's executive director.

"We do have quite a few Spanish-speaking staff in every one of our programs, including court advocates, shelters and educators in schools," Verano said.

Her agency uses a language line phone interpreting service when needed, and there is a hotline available in Spanish for those who call in seeking help.

Connecticut College students who are studying Spanish have been volunteering with several agencies throughout the area, including the Homeless Hospitality Center, New London Public Schools, Child and Family Agency, the Immigration Advocacy and Support Center and Levine's law firm. The college has received a two-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education that has enabled 23 students to go to 10 different countries and participate in internships in nine languages.

The college in November hosted a Spanish in our Community event where several employers, including Levine, who is fluent in Spanish, spoke about the needs for bilingual employees in their industries.

"Because the language of New London includes Spanish, we wanted to celebrate the work of our partners and educate our students so they can see the actual work they are able to meaningfully put forward if they commit to their language studies at Conn and beyond," said Jessica Blakeborough, international internship coordinator in the Hale Center for Career Development.

"What we're really trying to do is persuade students that adding another language provides so much more depth," she said.

k.florin@theday.com

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