Working with Interpreters and Others with Special Communication Skills

This chapter was added to the manual in November 2019.

1. Introduction

All agencies need to ensure they are able to communicate fully with parents, children and young people when they have concerns about child abuse and neglect and ensure that family members and professionals fully understand the exchanges that take place.

Consideration should be given to the use of intermediaries during interviews, assessments and/or advocacy, when appropriate.

2. Recognition of Communication Difficulties

In taking a referral professionals must establish the communication needs of the child/young person, parents and other significant family members. Relevant specialists may need to be consulted e.g. a language therapist, teacher of hearing impaired children/young people, paediatrician etc.

The use of accredited interpreters, signers or others with special communication skills must be considered whenever undertaking enquiries involving children/young people and/or family:

  • For whom English is not the first language (even if reasonably fluent in English, the option of an interpreter must be available when dealing with sensitive issues);
  • With a hearing or visual impairment;
  • Whose disability impairs speech;
  • With learning difficulties;
  • With a specific language or communication disorder;
  • With severe emotional and behavioural difficulties;
  • Whose primary form of communication is not speech.

Family, friends or involved professionals should not be used as interpreters within the conversations although can be used to arrange appointments and establish communication needs. Children/young people should never be used as interpreters.

For children, young people and/or parents requiring interpreters, it is vital to establish their dialect, pertaining to their country of origin, as it might have significant outcomes for the translation. It should also be noted that cultural issues between the interpreter and victim / witness might have a bearing on the translation or disclosure. When planning using an interpreter consideration should always be given to gender and religious and cultural beliefs respected.

3. Conversations with Children and Young People

The particular needs of a child/young person who is thought to have communication difficulties should be considered at an early point in the planning of the enquiry (Strategy Discussion stage).

Professionals should be aware that communication  is possible when a child/young person communicates by means other than speech and should not assume that a conversation is not possible even if it would not meet the legal standards required to be admissible as evidence.

All conversations should be tailored to the individual needs of the child/young person and a written explanation included in the plan about any departure from usual standards.

Every effort should be made to enable such a child/young person to tell their story directly to those undertaking enquiries.

Workers having discussions with children/young people should be patient; identifying need across a language barrier takes time. However, the time spent up-front will be paid back by good rapport and clear communication that will avoid wasted time and dangerous misunderstandings.

Building trust with a child/ young person will also take time in order for them to open up and talk about the issue you want to discuss with them, particularly if they have been told not to talk about those issues.

Workers must remember to speak more slowly when using an interpreter to ensure information is translated correctly and allowing for the child/ young person to respond, this will also promote an atmosphere of calmness.

If the child/young person becomes anxious, distressed or overtired, check this out, and if necessary take a break.

It may be necessary to seek further advice from professionals who know the child well or are familiar with the type of impairment they have e.g. paediatrician at the child development centre, the child's school and/or the social worker from the disabled children's team.

Professionals should be aware that some children/young people will be perfectly fluent in English but will use their family language for intimate parts of the body.

When the child is spoken to it may be helpful for an appropriate professional to assist the interviewer and child/young person. Careful planning is required of the role of this adviser and the potential use of specialised communication equipment.

Investigative Interviews

Achieving Best Evidence in Criminal Proceedings: Guidance on interviewing victims and witnesses, and guidance on using special measures (Ministry of Justice) provides guidance on interviewing vulnerable witnesses, including learning disabilities and of the use of interpreters and intermediaries.

Interviews with witnesses with special communication needs may require use of an interpreter or intermediary and are generally much slower. The interview may be long and tiring for the witness and might need to be broken into 2 or 3 parts preferably (but not necessarily) held on the same day.

A witness should be interviewed in the language of their choice and vulnerable or intimidated witnesses, including children, may have a supporter present when being interviewed.

4. Using Interpreters with Family Members

If the family's first language is not English and even if they appear reasonably fluent, the offer of an interpreter should be made, as it is essential that all issues are understood and fully explained.

Interpreters used for communication with children/young people should have been subject to references, DBS checks and a written agreement regarding confidentiality. Whenever possible, they should be used to interpret their own first language. Establish any preferences regarding the gender of the interpreter. For example in cases of Female Genital Mutilation, Forced Marriage or So Called "Honour" Based Abuse the interpreter must be accredited and not have any connection with the family or be someone who is prominent or influential in the individual's community.

Professionals need to first meet with the interpreter to explain the nature of the discussion, aims and plan of the discussion, and clarify:

  • The interpreter's role in translating direct communications between professionals and family members;
  • The need to avoid acting as a representative of the family;
  • When the interpreter is required to translate everything that is said and when to summarise;
  • That the interpreter is prepared to translate the exact words that are likely to be used – especially critical for sexual abuse;
  • When the interpreter will explain any cultural issues that might be overlooked (usually at the end, unless any impede the process);
  • The interpreter's availability to interpret at other discussions, meetings and provide written translations of reports (taped versions if literacy is an issue).

Family members may choose to bring their own interpreter as a supporter.

Invitations to child protection conferences and reports must be translated into a language / medium that is understood by the family.