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1.3.32 Working with Interpreters or Intermediaries


  1. Introduction
  2. Recognition of Communication Difficulties
  3. Managing Risk
  4. Planning Interviews with Interpreters
  5. Interpreting Session
  6. Interviewing Children
  7. Using Interpreters with Family Members

    Amendments to this Chapter

1. Introduction

All agencies need to ensure they are able to communicate fully with parents and children when they have concerns about child abuse and neglect and ensure that family members and practitioners fully understand the discussions that take place.

The use of accredited interpreters or intermediaries (signers or others with special communication skills) must be considered whenever undertaking enquiries involving children and/or family:

  • For whom English is not the first language (even if reasonably fluent in English, the option of an interpreter must be available when dealing with sensitive issues);
  • With a hearing or visual impairment;
  • Whose disability impairs speech;
  • With a specific language or communication disorder;
  • Whose primary form of communication is not speech.

Advocacy for children and families is a different role and this should be considered separately.

2. Recognition of Communication Difficulties

In taking a referral, practitioners must establish the communication needs of the child, parents and other significant family members.

In some settings, where service users will make direct contact to access services, plans must be in place to identify their communication need and to find a way of accessing help with communication or making a future appointment where this can be managed.

For children and/or parents requiring interpreters, it is vital to establish their dialect, pertaining to their country of origin, as it might have significant outcomes for the translation.

For children and / or parents requiring intermediaries, relevant specialists may need to be consulted e.g. a language therapist, teacher of hearing impaired children, paediatrician etc.

Practitioners should not make assumptions about how service users want to communicate, they should be asked, including whether they can read or write in English, or their first language.

Some service users will communicate information in different ways, some make points quickly and directly, others talk around it and others may be reluctant to express information. Time must be allowed for people to express themselves. Note that British Sign Language and other languages are structurally different to English so it may take less or more time than it would in English to communicate the same amount of information.

For the communication to be effective, practitioners should check mutual understanding regularly by asking open questions and using active listening skills. It is helpful to have the person repeat their understanding of what has been said.

Different agencies will commission services to support with specialist communication and these agencies will have their own codes of conduct and good practice guidance which will be available on request.

Translation of key documents will be considered on an individual basis. This task should only be undertaken by accredited individuals.

3. Managing Risk

Children should never be used as interpreters for their families.

Family, friends or involved practitioners should not be used as interpreters within interviews although they might assist in arranging appointments and to establish communication needs.

Interpreters used for interviewing children should have been subject to references, Disclosure and Barring Service checks and a written agreement regarding confidentiality. They should be selected because they are an accredited translator for the first language of the service user (considering the dialect needed).

Cultural issues between the interpreter and person being interviewed might have a bearing on the translation or disclosure. When planning to use an interpreter, consideration should always be given to whether there may be gender issues and how religious and cultural beliefs can be respected. This may be particularly relevant where the person being interviewed may be disclosing some very sensitive information and have concerns that the interpreter’s link to their faith or culture. The person may be concerned that the interpreter may not approve of the disclosure (for example in honour based violence, domestic abuse, spiritual abuse). A non verbal check should be made, where possible, with the person being interviewed that they are OK with the interpreter or the details of the interpreter could be shared in advance using a tool such as google translation.

In the case of suspected Female Genital Mutilation the interpreter must not have any connection with the family and their cultural beliefs must be explored before agreeing their involvement.

The confidentiality of a child’s whereabouts if they are thought to have been trafficked needs to be emphasised, as those responsible for trafficking children will make significant efforts to track and recover these children.

4. Planning Interviews with Interpreters

Practitioners need to first meet / discuss with the interpreter / intermediary to explain the nature of the investigation, aims and plan of the interview. This will also act as an opportunity for the interpreter / intermediary to check out that the language and dialect / communication type has been matched properly. This will be an opportunity to clarify:

  • The reason for the interview / meeting;
  • Factual information about the case. Contextual information improves meaningful interpretation;
  • The interpreter’s role in interpreting direct communications between practitioners and child / family members;
  • Whether any written materials are going to be used in the interview;
  • The need to avoid acting as a representative of the child / family;
  • When the interpreter is required to translate everything that is said unless specifically requested otherwise;
  • Discussion of interpreting methods required and that the interpreter is prepared to translate the exact words that are likely to be used – especially critical for sexual abuse; this will enable interpreters to prepare and research the language which may be needed;
  • Discussion of any previous incidents when the professional has not understood cultural implications. Agreement about when the interpreter will explain any cultural issues that might be overlooked (this may be an obvious misunderstanding between the two) This will usually be at the end, unless the misunderstanding is seen to be impeding the process;
  • The interpreter’s availability to interpret at other interviews and meetings and provide written translations of reports (taped versions if literacy is an issue);
  • Discussion of any challenging behaviour that may occur and how the interpreter might respond;
  • Whether there will be a debrief for the interpreter, especially for particularly sensitive situations;
  • Practical arrangements, such as the venue and the planned length of the meeting and whether breaks will be needed and whether the interpreter will be offered a short period of time to acquaint themselves with the family.

It is important that practitioners respect the impartiality of the interpreter. They should be careful not to share their personal perception of the client as this may affect the impartiality of the interpreter. Interpreters who are seen by the service user as spokespersons for the service providing agencies are often viewed with mistrust by members of their communities and feel pressure from both sides as a result.

5. Interpreting Session

Practitioners should be aware of seating and acoustic arrangements as well as using an area which allows respect for confidentiality. The usual arrangement is a triangular formation which allows everyone to see and clearly communicate with each other.

Interpreting Triangle

Practitioners should Conduct the interview themselves by asking the questions and talking to the client directly, not addressing them to the interpreter.

Some tips for use with interpreters are:

  • Speak in clear sentences with pauses in between for the interpreter to interpret what you are saying to the client;
  • Avoid jargon, abbreviations or specialist terminology if possible. Take extra care to explain procedures, regulations and reasons for asking for certain types of information, as service users may not be familiar with these. Checking out meaning of crucial words to ensure a shared understanding;
  • Allow the interpreter to check things with you e.g. The meaning of a word, the culture implications of something being said, the service user understands;
  • Feed your perceptions or doubts back to the interpreter and client to avoid misunderstandings;
  • Be sensitive to the demands and pressures on the interpreter;
  • At the end of the session check the client has understood everything and whether there is anything else they want to know. Check they understand the decisions taken;
  • Practitioners may check with the interpreter any factual, cultural information required to make an appropriate assessment but should not draw them into the assessment as this affects their independence.

6. Interviewing Children

The particular needs of a child who is thought to have communication difficulties should be considered at an early point in the planning of the assessment.

All interviews should be tailored to the individual needs of the child and records should be made about the way in which this is to be approached.

Every effort should be made to enable such a child to tell her/his story directly to those undertaking assessment.

Building trust with a child or young person will also take time in order for them to open up and talk about the issue you want to discuss with them, particularly if they have been told not to talk about those issues.

If the child or young person  appears anxious, distressed or overtired, check this out, and if necessary take a break. The interpreter / specialist will also need breaks.

Children whose first language is not English

Workers interviewing children should be patient; identifying need across a language barrier takes time. However, the time spent up-front will be paid back by good rapport and clear communication that will avoid wasted time and dangerous misunderstandings. 

Workers must remember to speak more slowly when using an interpreter to ensure information is translated correctly and allowing for the child or young person to respond, this will also promote an atmosphere of calmness.

Interviewers should be aware that some children will be perfectly fluent in English but will use their family language for intimate parts of the body.

Children with a disability

When the child is interviewed it may be helpful for an appropriate professional to assist the interviewer and child. Careful planning is required of the role of this adviser and the potential use of specialised communication equipment.

Practitioners should be aware that interviewing is possible when a child communicates by means other than speech and should not assume that an interview is not possible even if it would not meet the legal standards required to be admissible as evidence in a Court.

For children with a disability, it may be necessary to seek further advice from practitioners who know the child well or are familiar with the type of impairment s/he has e.g. paediatrician at the child development centre, the child’s school and/or the social worker from the disabled children’s team.

Investigative Interviews

Achieving Best Evidence in Criminal Proceedings Guidance on interviewing victims and witnesses, and guidance on using special measures (March 2011) provides guidance on interviewing vulnerable witnesses, including those with learning disabilities and of the use of interpreters and intermediaries.

Interviews with witnesses with special communication needs may require use of an interpreter or intermediary and are generally much slower. The interview may be long and tiring for the witness and interpreter and might need to be broken into 2 or 3 parts preferably (but not necessarily) held on the same day.

A witness should be interviewed in the language of her/his choice and vulnerable or intimidated witnesses, including children, may have a supporter present when being interviewed.

7. Using Interpreters with Family Members

If the family’s first language is not English and even if they appear reasonably fluent, the offer of an interpreter should be made, as it is essential that all issues are understood and fully explained. Practitioners can explain to families that there may be discussions which use words outside of their usual use of English and an interpreter can help with this.

Family members may choose to bring their own interpreter as a supporter, but practitioners should be mindful of the difficulties and risks outlined in Section 3, Managing Risk.

Invitations to child protection conferences and reports must be translated into a language/medium that is understood by the family.

Amendments to this Chapter

February 2015: This chapter was substantially updated and should be re-read in its entirety.