Abuse of Refugees to Be Investigated : Social services: State chooses Orange County Sexual Assault Network to mount the first major outreach program targeting the Southeast Asian community.


Many Southeast Asian refugees suffered extensive sexual abuse while fleeing their homelands, but few have received counseling or treatment since resettling in the state, social service officials say.

The need for counseling might be especially acute in Orange County, which has one of the largest Vietnamese populations in the state and boasts growing Cambodian and Laotian refugee communities.

State criminal justice and social service officials blame language and cultural barriers for hampering attempts to provide critically needed services to refugees, many of whom experienced brutal conditions in resettlement camps while fleeing their war-torn homelands.

In an effort to determine the extent of sexual abuse among the refugees, the state has chosen the Orange County Sexual Assault Network to mount the first major outreach program targeting Southeast Asians.

The network, a nonprofit agency based in Garden Grove near that city's Little Saigon neighborhood, operates a rape crisis hot line and offers counseling, community education and prevention programs, self-defense training and referral services.

Although funding for the project--budgeted at about $70,000--has been tied up pending the outcome of state budget talks, authorities are hoping to focus attention on the problem and find better ways to communicate with the Southeast Asian community.

"We already know going in that this is a group that has been severely traumatized by the resettlement process and, additionally, by how that relocation was accomplished," said Steve Schwendimann, a program specialist for the state Office of Criminal Justice Planning.

The agency provides funding for 70 sexual assault centers throughout the state and is overseeing the Orange County project.

Authorities say there is little data about the extent of assaults. A 1980 United Nations study reported that 40% of the female Vietnamese refugee population had been raped--sometimes repeatedly--during the resettlement process.

Many authorities believe that the problem might be worse among the second wave of arrivals (commonly known as the boat people), who generally were less educated, less affluent and more likely to have been stranded in resettlement camps for long periods.

Rape crisis experts say that many women, children and some men may have lived with the pain of sexual assault for decades.

"Because these groups don't disclose their victimization, they are a big, dark secret out there," said Marie Moore, executive director of the Orange County Sexual Assault Network. "The statistics that are going to be generated by the project will shock people."

Although language has presented a barrier to services, experts say cultural taboos surrounding sex have been the biggest obstacle.

Many Southeast Asian refugees adhere to a traditional patriarchal, extended family structure. Sexual relations outside of marriage are considered very shameful, personal matters must be kept private, and religious beliefs encourage stoicism. Discussions of sexual assault can result in ostracism from family and community.

In addition, many refugees are still distrustful of governmental authority and may be fearful of reporting crimes, said Thien Cao, a crime prevention officer with the Garden Grove Police Department.

"The police station represents the system and to ask for help is very hard," Cao said. "We have to try to create more personal contact because if they know someone, they are more likely to call that person."

Aside from past abuse, the difficulty of adjusting to a radically different culture has created new tensions among refugee families that sometimes finds outlet in sexual and physical abuse, Cao said. Incest, for example, has become a growing but still unacknowledged problem, he said.

Also, many refugee women inexperienced with American life are victimized because they do not realize that certain situations, such as leaving the home alone at night, are dangerous, experts said.

Moore said that even though help is available, Southeast Asian victims are far less likely to call rape crisis hot lines. In 1989 and 1990, only 22 calls from victims representing Asian groups were documented by the sexual assault network.

But in the first three months of 1991--after the agency began more intensive outreach in the communities--27 calls were received from Southeast Asian victims.

Moore hopes the numbers will increase with greater education. The group has sponsored self- defense workshops in Orange County's Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian communities and now has a handful of bilingual Southeast Asian volunteers on the staff--but more are needed.

Schwendimann said state officials are hoping that one outgrowth of the Orange County project, if and when it is funded, will be a training manual for sexual assault centers statewide.

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