Testimony of Natasha Riddle Romero, Bilingual Community Organizer, before the Committee of the Whole

March 2, 2022
Person Testifying: Natasha Riddle Romero
Title: Bilingual Community Organizer, Under 3 DC coalition
Testimony Heard By: Committee of the Whole

Good Afternoon Chairman Mendelson and members of the Committee of the Whole, my name is Natasha Riddle Romero and I am an organizer with Under 3 DC who works primarily with Spanish-speaking home-based child care providers and early childhood educators. My testimony today will focus on language access at the Division of Early Learning at OSSE, and specifically the Early Childhood Subsidy team and the Licensing and Compliance team.

A key goal of the Birth-to-Three law is expansion of access to affordable, high-quality early education and care seats. Without addressing the systemic language access barriers at OSSE, this goal will remain out of reach. These barriers can trickle down to parents, whether Spanish speaking or not, and create a void of culturally competent child care for families across the District.

I first noticed the small number of Spanish speaking providers participating in the subsidy program soon after starting my role. Among them, even fewer are home-based providers. The reasons for this are too many to cite here, but the number one reason Spanish-speaking providers have shared that they do not participate in the subsidy program  is the lack of infrastructure at OSSE to deal with non-English speakers. The licensing and compliance process can be prohibitive in itself because many aspects of the process, such as forms and documents, favor English speakers. When you add the child care subsidy process to the mix, including documents, training, and support, which also favor English speakers, the barriers to participation become  almost insurmountable. Those who have managed to navigate this process deserve awards just for their diligence and perseverance despite the odds.

Under 3 DC and its partners at the Multicultural Spanish Speaking Providers’ Association (MSSPA) and Many Languages One Voice (MLOV) have begun to work with OSSE and the Language Access Division at OHR to translate the written material that should be available to non-English speakers. OSSE is now taking steps to make these processes more accessible. We appreciate OHR’s facilitation of these conversations and OSSE’s engagement in the process, and we will continue to work with them to ensure that the agency takes meaningful steps to improve language access in early education.

The Language Access Act of 2004 was supposed to compel agencies (OSSE included) receiving local funding to translate written documents and provide interpretation services, which means these documents and materials should have been translated then. One home-based provider who opened her child care business in 2013 told us she wasn’t able to access forms and materials in her language, 9 years after the Act went into effect. Most stories we receive of providers’ struggles with language access at  the Department of Early Learning date back at least a decade, if not more.  Keep in mind that in order to keep your license as a child care provider you have to fill out some of these documents annually. You basically have to be lucky enough to know someone who is willing to help, be connected to the already overwhelmed advocacy community who might be able to help, or have the time to wait for OSSE to connect you to the appropriate resources, which in itself is a time-consuming and overwhelming process.

In order for OSSE to become more effective in providing resources in at least Spanish and Amharic, they need to be able to hire more bilingual staff at the licensing and compliance level and the subsidy level. They also need to ensure that the contractors they work with such as Capital Quality, and Shared Services Business Alliance, among others, are equipped with bilingual staff.

Just last week, Under 3, OHR, MSSPA, MLOV, and the licensing and compliance team at the Department of Early Learning met to discuss the changes they were making to the licensing process to ensure more language accessibility. They assured us that their compliance and quality monitors are trained in what to do when they encounter a provider who does not speak English. And yet, that same week, we got complaints from two Spanish speaking providers in Ward 4 who were having issues with their compliance monitors who did not accommodate their language needs.

This is unacceptable. OSSE knows there is a sizable community of Spanish- speaking providers, mostly home-based, who require language services. They know how lengthy and complicated the subsidy, licensing and compliance process are. And, they know how severely DC needs more licensed child care providers. This is why OSSE must provide LEP providers with the same  resources that are available for English speakers in Spanish and Amharic. They must also work to increase accountability for the contractors and staff people that work with LEP providers to ensure that providers encounter respect and reasonable accommodation for their language needs.