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BLOOMINGTON - Meeting the needs of an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 Spanish-speaking residents of McLean County is the focus of a new community assessment.

The McLean County Hispanic Families Work Group is working with the Illinois State University Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development to study that growing segment of the county's population.

The work group was formed three years ago at the urging of retired McLean County Judge Ronald Dozier, who questioned whether Spanish-speaking individuals who appeared for juvenile and other court matters understood the legal system.

More than 30 local organizations currently work with the organization to provide service to Hispanics.

The courtroom is one of several venues where Hispanics may need assistance beyond basic translation services, said Karen Major, chairwoman of the work group.

"A literal translation is not always enough," said Major. "People need to understand the nuances of the law and how the law works."

A shortage of translators has resulted in children serving as translators for their parents, said Major. When authorities are involved in investigating a child-welfare complaint and the child is interpreting, those situations cause problems, she noted.

Hispanic residents with health questions sometimes need help understanding medical issues. And public information campaigns ranging from the use of seat belts to how to properly buckle a child into a car seat are among the other areas where specialized help is needed for Hispanic residents.

A special effort is under way to attract bilingual workers to social service jobs and encourage current staffers to learn a second language, said Major.

Many Hispanics are working to overcome the language barrier through classes offered in the community. The services of an interpreter are important in filling the gap while Spanish-speaking residents learn the language and culture of their new home, said Major.

Bringing information to Hispanics about the community resources available to them was the goal of a directory published by the work group. More than 1,000 copies of the book have been circulated among schools and social service agencies in the county. The directory is written in Spanish and includes the names of agency staff members who speak Spanish.

The research project that will include the ISU Latin American and Latino Studies Program will examine the number of Hispanic residents and how the population can be better served by local businesses, government and nonprofit agencies. Funding for the study comes from the National Council of La Raza Development Fund, State Farm Bank, United Way, McLean County Health Department and the Economic Development Council.

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