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Interpreters, Signers and Others with Special Communication Skills

Scope of this chapter

All agencies need to ensure a capacity to communicate fully with parents and children when there are concerns about abuse / neglect and to ensure family members and professionals fully understand the exchanges that take place.

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

The use of accredited interpreters, signers or others with special communication skills must be considered whenever undertaking enquiries involving children 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 members should not be used as interpreters within the interviews although can be used to arrange appointments and establish communication needs.

The particular needs of a child who is thought to have communication problems should be considered at an early point in the planning of the enquiry (strategy discussion stage).

Professionals should be aware that interviewing is possible when a child communicates by means other than speech and should not assume that an interview, which meets the standards for purposes of criminal proceedings, is not possible.

All interviews should be tailored to the individual needs of the child and a written explanation included in 'Hertfordshire Constabulary Record of Interview Plan' about any departure from usual standards.

Every effort should be made to enable such a child to tell her/his story directly to those undertaking enquiries. It may be necessary to seek further advice from professionals who know the child well or are familiar with the type of impairment (s)he has e.g. paediatrician at the child development centre or for child's school, social worker from the disabled children's team.

Para. 2.39 of Achieving Best Evidence in Criminal Proceedings: Guidance for Vulnerable or Intimidated Witnesses, including Children 2007 indicates that if the child is very young, very traumatised, has an idiosyncratic or very specialised system of communication, an 'intermediary' rather than an interpreter my be required i.e. someone who knows both the child and her/his way of communication (intermediaries must not be witnesses to fact in the case).

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 children, and of the use of interpreters and intermediaries. See Section 47 Enquiry Procedure, Issues to Consider.

Interviews with witnesses with special communication needs, may enquire the use of an interpreter or an intermediary, and are generally much slower. Para.2.147 of the above guidance indicates that for some children, a number of shorter sessions may be preferable to a single interview.

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. Note though, para.2.42 and 2.43 of the ABE Guidance which indicates that 'persons involved in the case in any capacity cannot take on the role of witness supporter. This would include a parent to whom the child first disclosed abuse, or a parent whose partner or former partner is the subject of an allegation of abuse. It is important to ensure that the Interview supporter has not been involved, nor perceived by the child as having been involved in the alleged offence.

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

Interpreters used for child protection work in Hertfordshire are subject to references, DBS checks and a written agreement regarding confidentiality (see Children's Services Communication Unit - Interpretation & Translation Service 'Interpreters' Code of Practice' June 2006). 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.

When a social worker asks for interpreting support, the Interpreting & Translation Co-ordinator should identify an appropriate interpreter who is available and agrees the assignment.

The interpreter's details should be given to the social worker who should then contact that individual to fine tune arrangements about time / place and to 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 of the interview, unless any issue is impeding the interview);
  • The interpreter's availability for other interviews and meetings.

Generally, interpreters should not be asked to undertake document translation (which is carried out by a Hertfordshire agency). If illiteracy is an obstacle to understanding, the social worker and interpreter may go through with the service user, a translated written report. This ensures that the service users have a copy in their own first language for future reference (with help if need be).

Family members may choose to bring along 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 and if there is doubt as to an invitation will be understood (even in translation) the interpreter may be asked to phone the family and provide the necessary details.

Last Updated: December 7, 2023