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State measure would ban children as medical translators

A measure in the state legislature would ban the use of children as medical interpreters except in the case of an emergency. Some healthcare providers say it's an idea whose time has come. KPBS Health

For the millions of Californians who don't speak English, getting medical treatment can be a challenge. That's why some non-English speakers bring their children with them to the doctor's office to interpret.

But that be dangerous, especially if a child mis-translates what's being said.

A measure in the state legislature would ban the use of children as medical interpreters except in the case of an emergency. Some healthcare providers say it's an idea whose time has come. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.

At ten in the morning at La Maestra Family Clinic in City Heights, the waiting room is packed.
In one of the examination rooms, a woman from Somalia complains of having a fever and a sore throat. She doesn't speak English, and the doctor doesn't speak Somali. Staff member Marian Aidid acts as a translator.

Doctor and others: "Do you have wheezing? Wheezing means some sounds in the chest ."
The law requires clinics and hospitals that receive federal funds to provide translation when necessary. Most use interpreters that are available by phone. But some ask bilingual staff or a family member to help.

La Maestra Family Clinic has about 7,000 patients whose primary language is neither English nor Spanish. To accommodate those who speak other languages, the clinic has eight specially trained staff who serve as interpreters.

Clinic executive director Zara Marselian.

Zara Marselian: "It's really essential for that patient to feel like they have somebody who is of their culture, who understands them who they feel comfortable with, who speaks their language, but, you know what? This person can be trusted."

Of course, people trust their children, too. And Marselian says many patients would just as soon bring in one their kids to help translate. But Marselian says it's just not a good idea.

Marselian: "They don't understand certain concepts yet. It's unfair to place them in that kind of a position, and yet we do hear about it, at different hospitals and so forth, where the children are the ones who have to translate, and it's really atrocious. Because it's so unfair to them, and also, just think of the quality of the translation."

Indeed, errors in medical translation are not uncommon, even among adults. But a recent study found mistakes committed by children or others not professionally trained are much more likely to have potentially serious consequences.

When he was a child, Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Leland Yee had to serve as a translator for his mother when she went to the doctor. He remembers feeling extremely uncomfortable.

Leland Yee: "I truly didn't understand exactly what I was being asked to translate, and then, you know, I didn't really have the facility of Chinese in understanding the technical terms in Chinese. So you can imagine what a difficult situation it was."

Yee has introduced a bill that would prevent children from serving as interpreters at publicly funded hospitals or clinics, except in the case of an emergency.

Yee says it's not fair to ask children to translate what can sometimes be sensitive medical information.

Yee: "Can you imagine a young child having to translate for their parents that they have cancer? I mean those are not the kinds of situations you put kids in, psychologically, they're just not developmentally appropriate."

But Monterey-area State Senator Abel Maldonado doesn't see things that way.

Like Yee, Maldonado grew up in an immigrant family. He was constantly asked to interpret for his Spanish-speaking father.

Maldonado believes for many minorities, having a child translate at a doctor's office is healthy.

Abel Maldonado: "I think it's important for the young child to go, I mean, it's that bond, it helps you bond. It's personal for me. I was there for my dad, every time, and for now someone to tell me that I can't go with my dad to get his flu shot interpret for him? Give me a break, that's a little too much."

Maldonado says adults can choose another relative to help when a situation is too sensitive for a child.

But just because someone is bilingual and older, still doesn't mean they're qualified to interpret in a medical setting. At least that's the view of professional interpreter Rene Sala.

Rene Sala: First of all, one needs to know very well the subject matter that's being spoken, so the terminology around that subject matter. And also there is like a whole amount of social skills, psychological skills, that go in the interpreting process, in order to make sure that the communication between one person and the other is really happening."

And Sala believes children just aren't up to that task.

Yee's measure to curb the use of children as medical translators has cleared the State Assembly. It will be heard in the State Senate early next year.

Should the bill become law, it would be the most restrictive of its kind in the country.

Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.