by Melissa Sanchez and Maryam Jameel
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Local officials in Wisconsin are planning to improve how sheriff’s deputies communicate with people who don’t speak English in response to a ProPublica report that found that an investigation into the death of an 8-year-old Nicaraguan boy living on a dairy farm was mishandled due to a language barrier.
Dane County supervisors said that their goals include making language access a key part of department equity plans and creating a dedicated countywide language-access coordinator.
The efforts come as the parents of the boy, Jefferson Rodríguez, have settled a lawsuit against the farm and its insurance company over the July 2019 death in rural Dane, about a half hour north of Madison. As ProPublica reported in February, sheriff’s deputies wrongly concluded that the boy’s father, José María Rodríguez Uriarte, had accidentally run his son over with farming equipment.
But it was another worker, on his first work day at D&K Dairy, who had been driving the 6,700-pound Bobcat skid steer that crushed Jefferson, ProPublica found. The man had waited at the scene, expecting to be questioned, on the night Jefferson died. But deputies never interviewed him, in part due to a language barrier. ProPublica was able to reach him and he acknowledged he was driving the skid steer that night.
Jefferson’s death was ruled an accident and nobody was charged criminally. But Rodríguez was blamed in the official account. Rodríguez and Jefferson’s mother, María Sayra Vargas, who lives in Nicaragua, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in August 2020 against the farm and its insurer, Rural Mutual Insurance Company.
The trial was originally scheduled to begin this week in Dane County Circuit Court. But, about a month after ProPublica published its story, Jefferson’s parents reached a tentative agreement with the farm and insurance company, neither of which admitted wrongdoing. The agreement was later finalized in court and the lawsuit was dismissed in April.
Lawyers for Rural Mutual and the farm declined to comment.
Rodríguez said that the truth about his son’s death “has come to light” because of ProPublica’s reporting. He declined to share the settlement amount, but said the money will be helpful to him and his family.
“It doesn’t mean I’m happy. The sadness remains,” said Rodríguez, who now works on another dairy farm in Wisconsin. “All the money in the world wouldn’t make me the person I used to be. … I would like to be able to share this with Jefferson. That is what would fill me with joy.”
José and Jefferson Rodríguez (Courtesy of José Rodríguez)
In the weeks after our initial story was published, more than a half-dozen members of the Dane County Board of Supervisors told ProPublica they were horrified to learn of the conditions leading up to Jefferson’s death and the flawed law enforcement investigation that followed. Jefferson lived with his father above the farm’s milking parlor, the barn where hundreds of cows were brought day and night to be milked by heavy, loud machinery.
The Board of Supervisors sets the budget for and can make recommendations to the sheriff’s office. But it is limited in its ability to set policy.
A spokesperson for the sheriff’s department, which was not a defendant in the wrongful death lawsuit, said there have been no changes to its language access practices. The department has no written policies on what deputies should do when they encounter people who speak a language other than English or when to bring in an interpreter. The department relies on deputies to self-report their ability to speak languages other than English.
County Supervisor Dana Pellebon said one way she and her colleagues on the county board hope to improve language access at the department is through its equity work plan, a road map that each county agency lays out for how it can become more inclusive and fair. County departments are now updating those plans, she said, and the plans are then approved by the Equal Opportunity Commission, which she chairs. “Language access is something that will be a part of all the plans,” Pellebon said.
One area she hopes the sheriff’s office can address is ensuring language access in rural parts of the county where cellphone reception is weak and phone-based interpretation services aren’t available. “We want to make sure there is a workaround,” Pellebon said. “Either get to a space where there is cellphone service or find a landline at the space they’re at.”
She and other county officials are also considering the possibility of testing deputies’ proficiency in a foreign language instead of relying on their self-assessments. The deputy who interviewed Rodríguez the night his son died had described herself as a proficient Spanish speaker. But when a ProPublica reporter interviewed her, we discovered that the phrase she had used to ask Rodríguez whether he had run over his son with the farm machinery didn’t mean what she thought it did: It lacked a verb and a subject, and the result was confusing.
Rodríguez later told ProPublica he thought the deputy had asked whether his son had been run over by the skid steer, not whether he was driving the machine.
Dane County Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner said she will prioritize creating a countywide language-access coordinator position in next year’s budget to help agencies fulfill their obligations and organize the county’s plans and resources.
“It’s a basic access-to-government civil rights issue that permeates every department,” Wegleitner said. County departments that receive federal funding are required by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to take steps to make their services accessible to people who speak limited English.
The challenges that non-English-speaking immigrants face in communicating with law enforcement officials extend beyond Dane County. ProPublica found that sheriff’s deputies and police officers across the state routinely fail to communicate directly with Spanish-speaking immigrant workers on dairy farms when responding to incidents ranging from assaults to serious accidents. Records from dozens of incidents show that law enforcement officials routinely rely on employees’ supervisors and coworkers to communicate with immigrant workers. Often they turn to Google Translate. Sometimes they don’t speak with the workers at all or ask children to interpret.
Language access is “haphazard throughout the system,” said Nancy Rodriguez, a criminology professor at the University of California, Irvine who co-authored a May supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation on the issue. The report, which was based on a survey of criminal justice agencies and organizations across the country, recommended that agencies do more to understand the language needs of the people they serve and to monitor compliance with a language-access plan.
Our investigation into Jefferson’s death was the first story in our series “America’s Dairyland.”
We plan to keep reporting on issues affecting immigrant dairy workers across the Midwest. Among those issues: traffic stops of undocumented immigrants who drive without a license; difficulty accessing medical care or workers’ compensation after injuries on the job; and problems with employer-provided housing.
Do you have ideas or tips for us to look into? Please reach out to us using this form.
And if you know a Spanish speaker who might be interested in this topic, please share with them a translation of the story about Jefferson’s death — which also includes an audio version — or this note about how to get in touch with us.
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