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Roanoke tackles language barrier

About 95,000 of the 100,000 people who live in the city of Roanoke speak English well enough to work, attend school, receive health care, interact with government, use the transportation system and access the other necessities of life.

A language barrier inhibits that engagement for the other 5,000.

The city of Roanoke next month intends to take that barrier down.

The city has contracted with a company that can bring interpreters of 286 languages to the phone within half a minute, officials said.

The program is up and running in the courts, jail, emergency services, police, Department of Social Services and other municipal offices. It is intended to facilitate conversation between city offices and employees and members of the public with limited English ability. It works from a phone, tablet, laptop or computer.

Principles of language equity say that essential information should be available to members of a community in the specific language each person is most comfortable using, said Katie Hedrick, the city’s bilingual COVID-19 support specialist, who is heading up the program.

It’s not good enough for an agency such as social services to tell clients to bring their own interpreter to their appointment, said Steve Martin, agency director. It’s not good enough or even practical for children to translate for parents at the doctor, the bank or in teacher conferences, the logic goes.

Nor is Google Translate sufficient because, according to reviews, it makes errors.

The gold standard is live, two-way interpretation through a trained translator.

The city purchased its language access system from Roanoke-based Volatia Language Network, a private company that says it has built a network of 18,000 interpreters who provide on-demand translation 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Installation at the city began in April and is expected to be completed next month.

Complete cost information was not available, but information from Hedrick indicates the system could cost a few tens of thousands of dollars this year. Volatia charges a per-minute fee while interpretation is underway, but no monthly rate.

Roanoke is the first Virginia municipality in the state to offer two-way, or “bidirectional,” language access, Volatia CEO Baraka Kasongo said. The first school systems in the state to offer it are those in Henrico County, the city of Richmond and Waynesboro, he said.

Many governments, including Roanoke at one time, school systems and health care organizations offer one-directional language services – organizational personnel can invite an interpreter into the conversation for encounters with people who don’t readily speak English, Kasongo said.

Bidirectional language access connects the resident with an interpreter in their preferred language as they initiate contact. There’s no lag time waiting for the person who answered to identify the caller’s language and find and arrange for an interpreter to participate.

Roanoke’s system even has an edge even over those organizations that offer connection with an interpreter through a hotline or call center, Kasonga said. In Roanoke, persons can directly dial the office or person they seek – just like, Kasongo noted, people who readily speak English do.

Kasongo, 35, is a native of Rwanda who came to Roanoke years ago. His company, which is based on his own experience as a limited-English speaker, was founded in 2003.

To understand how the system works, it’s simplest to imagine a hypothetical caller contacting Roanoke by phone for a new trash can, library card, information about a neighborhood group or such.

Most municipal phone lines in Roanoke are answered by a recorded message that says, “For English press 1. For all other languages, press 2.”

Volatia software activates when the second option is selected. “We have an algorithm that’s listening to them talk,” Kasonga said.

It identifies the caller’s language and summons an interpreter to the line. The interpreter stays on the line as the caller is put through to the city office originally dialed. A three-way conversation ensues involving the caller, the interpreter and the city employee. If the call goes to voice mail, the interpreter translates the caller’s message in English for the recording.

As an added feature, the system accommodates videoconferencing. That means city employees, who have password access to the Volatia app, can elect a videoconference rather than an audio call if they choose. If a resident needing help happens to be physically present, video might be the way to go.

A faster protocol provides interpretation for the 911 system to avoid delaying the caller’s report.

Hedrick, the program lead, said it may take some time for city personnel and users of city services to get the hang of how the system works. A period of training has begun that will continue, she said, including the eventual publication of a video to explain the system to members of the community.

Hedrick demonstrated the system Friday using an iPad tablet that’s been stationed in the lobby of the Noel C. Taylor Municipal Building. From a language menu, she selected Swahili with a tap of her finger. Unseen to users, the software summoned a Swahili interpreter to the call.

In moments, Evans Otieno appeared by videoconference from Nairobi, Kenya. Upon learning his location, Hedrick mentioned that one of the Roanoke Valley’s sister cities is Kisumu, Kenya.

“That’s my hometown,” Otieno said.

Roanoke’s being a longtime refugee resettlement area, scores of languages are spoken locally. In addition to Swahili, a language spoken in Africa, foreign tongues that are commonly spoken in Roanoke include Spanish, Dari, Haitian-Creole, Nepali and Arabic, Hedrick said. There are 7,000 languages in the world, of which Volatia says it is offering 286.

An estimated 5% of city residents speak English “less than well,” according to data from the Virginia Department of Health.

For them, not being conversant in the dominant language presents all kinds of obstacles to success.

“You are pretty much left out of those opportunities and resources that can help your life become better,” said Ahoo Salem, who directs Blue Ridge Literacy, a nonprofit that helps adults reach life goals through literacy skills.

The practical uses for the new system are numerous.

Recently, a man walked into a local library to attend a vaccination clinic, Hedrick said. He did not respond verbally at registration for the shot, at which point event staff determined he was deaf. A tablet computer was brought out with the language app running. Somebody tapped the key for sign language.

“I’d say within 15 seconds we had an interpreter on the iPad,” Hedrick said. The man was given the tablet and “he held it through his whole appointment,” Hedrick said.

In unusual move, federal judge leaves courtroom while defense attorney makes his argument

During a recent hearing in Roanoke’s federal court, assistant public defender Benjamin Schiffelbein was making an aggressive attack on the testimony of a Henry County sheriff’s deputy who said he found the defendant driving a pickup truck full of firearms.

The judge wasn’t listening — literally.

In a highly unusual move, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Dillon ended a tense exchange by standing up and walking out of the courtroom without calling a formal recess, leaving Schiffelbein to make his arguments to an empty bench.

The attorney later filed a written objection, saying Dillon violated the basic principle that every defendant — including his client, Alan Wagoner, who faces a charge of possessing firearms as a convicted felon — is entitled to have their case heard.

“It conveyed the message to Mr. Wagoner that whatever his counsel had to say did not and would not matter,” the document states.

Dillon had not filed a response to the objection, which was made Sept. 17, by late Friday afternoon.

But a law professor at the University of Richmond, who reviewed the court documents at the request of The Roanoke Times, said it does not appear that the judge violated any procedural rules.

“I think it’s unusual, but I’m not sure it makes any difference,” said Ron Bacigal, who specializes in criminal law and procedure.

Schiffelbein had argued that he should be allowed to make a proffer, or a summary of his arguments against a ruling by Dillon, who had just cut off his line of questioning that went to the sheriff’s deputy’s credibility.

Proffers are usually made to create a record for appellate courts, Bacigal said, so the matter was essentially out of the trial judge’s hands when she decided to leave the courtroom.

Wagoner’s objection cited a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision that held that a fundamental right of due process is the opportunity to be heard. That case, which originated in Roanoke, dealt with a Social Security recipient who did not receive a hearing before the government terminated his benefits.

Although Wagoner was allowed to make his argument, Schiffelbein wrote, “he watched his attorney do so (as instructed) in a courtroom devoid of the person for whom the argument was intended.”

A traffic stop leads to charges

At about 2 a.m. on Jan. 26, 2020, the Henry County Sheriff’s Office received a report of a suspicious vehicle on Barker Road in the Axton community.

Lt. Travis Hambrick responded and saw a white Dodge pickup truck towing a van by a chain. After the truck crossed the yellow center line, Hambrick initiated a traffic stop, which was also based on what he said was an illegal towing method.

The driver, who Hambrick recognized as Wagoner from past encounters, did not stop and pulled into a nearby driveway. He then placed his hands on his head and began to walk away, ignoring orders to stop, Hambrick testified at a hearing in Dillon’s court.

Wagoner was pepper-sprayed and forced to the ground. After he was handcuffed, deputies went back to the truck and saw, through the driver’s-side door that remained open, an assault-style firearm and a pistol under the seat.

Hambrick testified that the two guns — and about 10 others that were in the bed of the truck along with a large amount of ammunition — were in plain sight, which did not require a search warrant.

But sheriff’s deputies “went a step further” by obtaining a search warrant before seizing the weapons, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristin Johnson wrote in court papers.

Wagoner, 44, was charged with possessing multiple firearms and ammunition as a convicted felon and for having a sawed-off shotgun that would have been illegal even without his criminal record.

Schiffelbein filed a motion to suppress the evidence, arguing that it could not have been in plain sight and that Hambrick conducted an illegal search by actually going into the cab of the truck before a warrant was issued.

A hearing on the motion was scheduled for Aug. 23.

Police videos and photos missing

Hambrick testified that he never actually entered the truck before getting a search warrant, and that he could clearly see the firearms by using a flashlight while standing outside its open door.

Asked why his body camera did not show the firearms, Hambrick explained that it must have slipped out of its harness, and that technical issues often caused the footage to be choppy and incomplete.

Schiffelbein also learned for the first time that day from testimony that photographs taken of the guns were later lost, and that a camera on the dashboard of Hambrick’s patrol cruiser had not been working for more than a year.

Based on that information, he began to ask if there were any written reports or information that would corroborate or refute the deputy’s claims.

Johnson objected, arguing that the government was not aware of any such information, and that Schiffelbein’s questions were irrelevant to the topic of the hearing. Dillon sustained her objection, saying “Let’s just move on to the issues before the court today.”

Schiffelbein pushed back, arguing that a federal law passed in response to a Supreme Court case allowed him to make such an inquiry in his efforts to question the deputy’s credibility. If any written information existed, he said, he needed it immediately for cross-examination.

“I find it highly dubious that this department realizes that there’s camera footage that isn’t recording, that doesn’t exist for more than a year, and there’s no note, nothing written in any file?” he said, according to a transcript of the hearing.

“I just don’t believe that.”

Dillon said the defense was free to file a written proffer, but that her decision to sustain the government’s objection stood.

“I know you have an issue if the court doesn’t allow you to argue everything properly,” she said. “And I want to give you the full opportunity to make that argument, Mr. Schiffelbein.”

“You’re welcome to file anything in your brief with regard to following up on this motion,” she said. “But we’re moving on with this hearing today.”

An unexpected departure

Again, the defense persisted.

Dillon then “quite unexpectedly rose from the bench and left the courtroom with the parting instruction ... you may proffer that while I’m out of the courtroom,” Schiffelbein’s objection stated.

According to the transcript of the hearing, the judge said that she was going to take a recess. But everyone else remained in their places, and Schiffelbein asked if the hearing was still on the record. The clerk informed him that it was.

After the proffer was made, Dillon returned to the courtroom and the hearing continued. She has not rendered an opinion yet on Wagoner’s motion to suppress the evidence.

About a half dozen Roanoke attorneys, none of whom wanted to be quoted in the newspaper, said that Dillon’s actions were highly unusual. Schiffelbein’s objection states that his office has “searched in vain” for similar cases nationally.

Perhaps just an unprecedented, at least as the government sees it, was Schiffelbein’s over-the-top approach.

“Counsel spins these tales of his wild speculation, drawing every biased and adverse inference that’s not supported by the evidence,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Miller said during the August hearing.

“He keeps, in spite of the evidence, making factual assertions and making demands that he must be correct as he wails into the wind.”

Committee OKs $3.5T spending plan

WASHINGTON — Democrats pushed a $3.5 trillion, 10-year bill strengthening social safety net and climate programs through the House Budget Committee on Saturday, but one Democrat voted “no,” illustrating the challenges party leaders face in winning the near unanimity they’ll need to push the sprawling package through Congress.

The Democratic-dominated panel, meeting virtually, approved the measure on a near party-line vote, 20-17. Passage marked a necessary but minor checking of a procedural box for Democrats by edging it a step closer to debate by the full House. Under budget rules, the committee wasn’t allowed to significantly amend the 2,465-page measure, the product of 13 other House committees.

More important work has been happening in an opaque procession of mostly unannounced phone calls, meetings and other bargaining sessions among party leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers. President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have led a behind-the-scenes hunt for compromises to resolve internal divisions and, they hope, allow approval of the mammoth bill soon.

Pelosi told fellow Democrats Saturday that they “must” pass the social and environment package this week, along with a separate infrastructure bill and a third measure preventing a government shutdown on Friday. Her letter to colleagues underscored the pile of crucial work Congress’ Democratic majority faces in coming days and seemed an effort to build urgency to resolve long-standing disputes quickly.

“The next few days will be a time of intensity,” she wrote.

Moderate Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., joined all 16 Republicans on the Budget committee in opposing the legislation. His objections included one that troubles many Democrats: a reluctance to back a bill with provisions that would later be dropped by the Senate.

Many Democrats don’t want to become politically vulnerable by backing language that might be controversial back home, only to see it not become law. That preference for voting only on a social and environment bill that’s already a House-Senate compromise could complicate Pelosi’s effort for a House vote this week.

Peters was among three Democrats who earlier this month voted against a plan favored by most in his party to lower pharmaceutical costs by letting Medicare negotiate for the prescription drugs it buys.

Party leaders have tried for weeks to resolve differences among Democrats over the package’s final price tag, which seems sure to shrink. There are also disputes over which initiatives should be reshaped, among them expanded Medicare, tax breaks for children and health care, a push toward cleaner energy and higher levies on the rich and corporations.

Democrats’ wafer-thin majorities in the House and Senate mean compromise is mandatory. Before the measure the Budget panel approved Saturday even reaches the House floor, it is expected to be changed to reflect whatever House-Senate accords have been reached, and additional revisions are likely.

The overall bill embodies the crux of Biden’s top domestic goals. Budget panel chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., cited “decades of disinvestment” on needs like health care, education, child care and the environment as the rationale for the legislation.

“The futures of millions of Americans and their families are at stake. We can no longer afford the costs of neglect and inaction. The time to act is now,” Yarmuth said.

Republicans say the proposal is unneeded, unaffordable amid accumulated federal debt exceeding $28 trillion and reflects Democrats’ drive to insert government into people’s lives. Its tax boosts will cost jobs and include credits for buying electric vehicles, purchases often made by people with comfortable incomes, they said.

“This bill is a disaster for working-class families,” said Rep. Jason Smith of Missouri, the committee’s top Republican. “It’s a big giveaway to the wealthy, it’s a laundry list of agenda items pulled right out of the Bernie Sanders socialist playbook.”

The unusual weekend session occurred as top Democrats amp up efforts to end increasingly bitter disputes between the party’s centrist and progressive wings that threaten to undermine Biden’s agenda.

Biden conceded Friday that talks among Democrats were at a “stalemate,” though Pelosi and Schumer have been more positive in an apparent effort to build momentum and soothe differences. A collapse of the measure at his own party’s hands would be a wounding preview to the coming election year, in which House and Senate control are at stake.

To nail down moderates’ support for an earlier budget blueprint, Pelosi promised to begin House consideration by Monday of another pillar of Biden’s domestic plans: a $1 trillion collection of roadway and other infrastructure projects. Pelosi reaffirmed this week that the infrastructure debate would begin Monday.

But many moderates who consider the infrastructure bill their top goal also want to cut the $3.5 trillion social and environment package and trim or reshape some programs. They include Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.

In response, progressives — their top priority is the $3.5 trillion measure — are threatening to vote against the infrastructure bill if it comes up for a vote first. Their opposition seems likely to be enough to scuttle it, and Pelosi hasn’t definitively said when a vote on final passage of the infrastructure measure will occur.