Use of interpreters

This service description covers how to use interpreters in child protection practice.
Document ID number 2702, version 3, 27 September 2018.

Children, families and other people involved in planning or decision making processes should be provided with an interpreter, if necessary, to allow them to participate fully in the process. An interpreter may therefore be needed at any stage from intake through to case closure.

Interpreters used in child protection practice are trained and accredited professionals who provide the service of interpreting in situations where:

  • the child or family may speak no English at all
  • English is not the first language of the child or family
  • the child or family may be hearing impaired.

The role of the interpreter is simply to interpret exactly what is being said between the practitioner and the child or family. The interpreter does not perform any other function such as advocate or support worker.

Sometimes documents need to be translated, such as information for parents regarding substantiation, case plans, court reports and decisions and so forth.

In Victoria, the interpreting services practitioners are most likely to have contact with are:

  • Telephone Interpreting Service (TIS) – 24 hours, for all matters where a practitioner may have contact with a child or family by telephone, or face to face.
  • Legal Interpreting Service (including deaf interpreting services) – 24 hours, for all matters where practitioners will have face-to-face contact with a child or family and for all court related matters.
  • National Relay Service (Interpreting Services for the Deaf) – 24 hours, for all matters where a practitioner may wish to communicate with a hearing impaired person by telephone.
  • Vicdeaf Auslan Interpreting Services – provides interpreting services for hearing and eyesight impaired persons.
  • Victorian Interpreting and Translating Service (VITS).
Information sharing

A practitioner may be required to disclose confidential information to an interpreter to assist in an investigation, assessment or decisions relating to a child.

The CYFA provides for information sharing in the context of child protection practice where required to carry out child protection functions. See Information sharing in child protection practice.



Child protection work requires practitioners to gather detailed, precise and sensitive information as well as communicate a range of involved procedures, processes and decisions to a child and family. The use of an interpreter can add an extra layer of complexity to this work. Therefore, planning is essential to ensure that in all discussions, information, advice and directions are communicated effectively and clearly.

For example:

  • Practitioners should request an interpreter or offer the child and family the choice to have an interpreter present in every instance where there may be some doubt as to whether the child and family can communicate competently and understand correctly everything that is being said to them.
  • The requirement to use an interpreter can extend the time a practitioner may expect to allocate in direct contact with the child and family. Therefore, where possible, practitioners need to factor this into any contact they may have with a family, particularly where this contact may involve a planned meeting, a visit or other professionals.
  • Where possible, practitioners should arrange to meet with the interpreter prior to having contact with the child and family to provide the interpreter with an explanation for the contact, who may be present, and the purpose of the contact for example, to gather information, to provide advice, to explain processes or procedures, or to fulfil statutory requirements.
  • When requesting the services of an interpreter practitioners should clarify, as far as practicable, the correct language and dialect of the child or family or the language that the child or family wish to communicate in. It is not unusual for people to speak two or more languages and, in many countries, more than one language is used by large percentages of the population, for example, in China, Cantonese and Mandarin are the two most widely used languages.
  • If there are documents that require translation practitioners need to be aware that this may take some time and should factor this into any planning. This will also incur a cost, which will need to be approved in advance.
  • Practitioners should note that the use of a client's relatives, friends or non-accredited interpreters to translate information is not ideal and, where possible, the use of an accredited interpreter is preferable.

The use of an interpreter should be considered in all cases where a person's first language is not English. An interpreter's core role is to:

  • clarify information
  • ensure that the core information is correctly understood
  • identify cultural issues in the translation and exchange of information
  • provide a contextual cultural background in terms of particular responses from a child and family (although this should be clarified with relevant cultural family services)
  • identify the cues that may not be present through simply translating information such as possible psychiatric issues.

While interpreters are professionals whose role it is to provide interpreting services, the nature of child protection work can mean that much of the information to be communicated and translated can be distressing and traumatic to hear. When practitioners plan to use an interpreter consideration should be given to discussing the following with the interpreter prior to making contact with the family:

  • whether they have interpreted in child protection cases before
  • what their understanding is of child protection's role and mandate
  • the nature and content of what they may be required to interpret
  • how the family may present
  • the expectations of the contact
  • an exit plan if the contact needs to be terminated due to safety concerns
  • that information exchanged during the contact is confidential and must not be discussed with any other person.

In using interpreters there are some general techniques that can assist in facilitating a productive and 'smooth' contact:

  • talk directly to the person with whom you are intending to speak, rather than to the interpreter
  • talk in a normal tone and manner
  • try to think about how to structure what is to said
  • use short sentences or 'blocks' as short as possible to allow the interpreter to translate everything
  • check that what is being said is clearly and properly understood
  • be aware that cultural differences may mean that something that is said could be understood differently.

While the interpreter's role is to translate, at times it may be useful to check with the interpreter whether what is being said is being clearly and correctly understood. Facial expressions and body language can sometimes be a good indicator to gauge this. If during a contact with a child or family there appears to be a divergence between the information and the response, consider checking with the interpreter whether the content is being understood or communicated effectively.

Children's Court

The Court must only hear or determine matters if it is satisfied that the child or any other party who cannot speak or understand English sufficiently well to comprehend the proceedings, is provided with an interpreter. This interpreter must be accredited to translate court proceedings.

When attending court, if a child, parent or significant other person who is party to the Court proceedings requires an interpreter, it is the responsibility of the practitioner to ensure that the Court is made aware of this. The practitioner should contact the court registrar as early as possible prior to the hearing. A separate interpreter should be requested for each party who requires an interpreter. The registrar will then make arrangements for the required number of interpreters to be present. The practitioner should also inform the Secretary's legal representative that one or more interpreters are required and request that the matter be stood down until the interpreters arrive.

When an interpreter is engaged by Child Protection to carry out its functions, or on behalf of the family to understand a court proceeding, the interpreter will be required to comply with provisions in the CYFA and other legislation, such as the Privacy and Data Protection Act 2014. The interpreter will be required to comply with any guidelines applicable to providers of interpreting services.

Considerations for good practice

Practitioners need to be mindful of a number of considerations that can assist in facilitating contact with a child and family through an interpreter.

In child protection practice there is technical, specialised and precise language, which may require explanation. When language barriers and cultural differences are added, practitioners may need to take extra care to ensure that:

  • information is clearly provided
  • all terms, definitions, explanations, descriptions, requirements, expectations are unambiguous and understood.

Child protection practice involves contact with a broad cross section of the community. There may be instances where practitioners have contact with refugees and people who have been victims of torture or persecution in their native country. Practitioners need to be mindful that many concepts, terms and structures, for example, justice, fairness, statutory involvement, state run systems, courts, police and government department, may have a very different meaning and association for some people. Practitioners need to be sensitive to how these terms may be understood when having contact with children and families from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds.