Empire Justice Center and other advocacy groups that support domestic violence survivors were thrilled to learn that family courts on Long Island began issuing bilingual Orders of Protection in Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, and Russian on January 4, 2016. In response to a letter from a coalition of more than 10 Long Island based organizations, Office of Court Administration Executive Director Ronald Younkins announced the extension of a pilot project to issue Orders of Protection (OPs) in languages understood by limited English proficient (LEP) participants in family court proceedings in Nassau and Suffolk Counties. The coalition of advocates had urged that bilingual OPs be made available on Long Island because of its large immigrant population and the potential dangers that arise when OPs are not understood by the people to whom they are directed.
New York LEP residents have always been actively involved in family courts. Victims of domestic violence will often petition in family court for OPs against abusers. If a victim alleges that the abuser continues to represent a danger , the family court judge will issue a Temporary OP specifying what, if any, contact is permitted between the alleged victim and abuser prior to a hearing. A temporary order will be extended if there is proof at a hearing that the abuser poses an active threat to the victim.
Until this year, however, OPs were only issued in English. LEP domestic violence survivors often have access to language assistance and support from advocates, and interpreters are present in the courtroom. However, when they return home with an order they are unable to read or understand, they will have difficulty if they need to seek its enforcement from the police or the court. Additionally, it is problematic for the courts and law enforcement to insist on adherence to an order to stay away or refrain from certain activity if the order is in English and the LEP perpetrator cannot understand it.
New York began a pilot project in 2015 to issue bilingual OPs in English and Spanish in selected counties throughout the state. The success of the pilot led the Office of Court Administration to expand the project to other counties and additional languages in 2016. When Long Island advocacy groups realized that neither Suffolk nor Nassau County was included in the expansion despite the large LEP population in both counties, we wrote to OCA’s Executive Director and the Honorable C. Randall Hinrichs, the Tenth Judicial District Administrative Judge who oversees the administration of state courts in these counties, asking for reconsideration. As a result, OCA determined to include Long Island in the 2016 expansion.
The availability of bilingual OPs will improve the safety of Long Island residents and may save lives. Empire Justice and other advocates will continue to press for translation of bilingual OPs and other vital court documents into Haitian Creole, Korean, Polish, and other widely used languages to offer greater protection to as many people as possible. But for today, we can celebrate that the family courts are poised to take an important step in safeguarding our communities.