Of all the tragedies the Tran family has endured since the Communist takeover of South Vietnam--the loss of their printing business, their perilous escape by boat, months in crowded refugee camps and the struggle to overcome poverty in America--the worst may be yet to come.
Two Tran children were placed in foster care with strangers last week after their mother, who relatives say is mentally ill, abandoned one of them in a West Hills discount store. Despite tearful pleas from family members seeking custody of the children, a dependency court judge Thursday ordered 18-month-old Trinh and 5-month-old Melissa to remain in foster care pending a hearing Nov. 2.
If the children are permanently removed from the family, their link with their ancestors would be severed, the worst fate imaginable for a Vietnamese family, experts say.
“We have an expression about the importance of the family: Chim co to; nguoi co tong-- The bird has a nest; the human being has ancestors,” said Bay Van Vo, a Vietnamese social worker with Asian Rehabilitation Services in Los Angeles. “If these children are raised by strangers, it would hurt the family so much they probably would become crazy.”
The family faces a second misfortune stemming from the ordeal that began last Friday, when Hang Tran left Trinh in a shopping cart at a Target store in the Fallbrook Mall.
Hang Tran, 31, has been charged with two felony counts of child abandonment and faces a maximum sentence of three years in jail if convicted.
“My sister is mental--she needs help, not jail,” said Ha Tran, 41, of Long Beach, an unemployed electronics technician on welfare who is studying to be a hairdresser and wants custody of the children. “But no way strangers are going to raise our kids.”
Detectives assigned to the case say the family was lucky that no one abducted Trinh, who was wearing a pink dress with a lace collar when store employees found her napping in the cart near a diaper bag crammed with eight bottles of formula.
“I don’t think anyone wants to see (Hang Tran) serve time,” said Det. Roland L’Heureux of the Los Angeles Police Department’s West Valley Division. “But it’s a good thing this happened. She could have left her in a parking lot and who knows what would have happened. This way, it takes care of the kids, and now Mom can get some help.”
When detectives interviewed Hang Tran, all she could say was “VC, VC,” an apparent reference to the Viet Cong, L’Heureux said.
“I was thinking about world peace,” she said in response to questions from a Times reporter.
“It’s a sad case,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Leonard Shaffer. “There are cultural differences involved. But at this point, we have to judge initially within the culture we live.”
A harrowing picture of life in the Tran household emerged from interviews this week with Hang Tran and her relatives, who spoke primarily through a Vietnamese interpreter hired by The Times.
Since late spring, eight people--Hang Tran, her mother, one of her sisters, her brother-in-law and four children--have pooled their limited resources and rented a cramped, three-bedroom bungalow on Enfield Avenue in Reseda for $900 a month.
Family members, who emigrated to the United States in stages after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, are still struggling financially. Hang Tran and her two children are on welfare. Her 69-year-old mother, Huong Nguyen, lives on Social Security. Her brother-in-law, Duc Huynh, is pastor of the 80-member Vietnamese congregation at the First Baptist Church of Reseda while he studies for a master’s degree in theology. His wife, Huong, 30, studies office administration at night and takes care of the couple’s 9-year-old girl and 2-year-old boy during the day.
But economic necessity was not the only factor behind the arrangement.
The family needed to hide Hang Tran from her alcoholic boyfriend, the father of the two girls, relatives said. And Hang Tran, who long suffered from bouts of forgetfulness and disorientation, could not take care of herself or her two children alone.
“Asian family ties are generally very strong,” said Jeanette Choi, clinical director of the Asian Pacific Family Center in Rosemead. “It is the family’s responsibility to take care of ill relatives.”
Relatives could not name Hang Tran’s condition, but said it surfaced more than 15 years ago after she contracted typhoid fever in Vietnam. Since 1981, after escaping from Vietnam on a boat and living in a Malaysian refugee camp, she wandered away from home and was hospitalized for psychiatric ailments “three or four times,” her sister Ha Tran said.
Duc Huynh, the pastor, said he knew Hang Tran was mentally ill, but was unprepared for the disruption she wreaked on the family household. The slim, sloe-eyed woman would often erupt without warning into fits of yelling, swearing and slamming doors, relatives said. Her condition worsened because she refused to take the tranquilizers prescribed for her, and was seeing her counselor only once every three weeks because the clinic was located in Santa Ana, they said.
“It has only been six months, but it feels like a century to me,” Duc Huynh said of the cohabitation.
Eager to spend some time alone with his family, Duc Huynh acquiesced to Hang Tran’s demands last Friday and dropped her and her children off in the morning at the shopping mall. He said he had done so before without major incident.
This time was different.
Hang Tran was nowhere to be found when he returned at 6 p.m., more than seven hours later. In the meantime, Trinh had been found, taken to the West Valley police station and turned over to the Los Angeles County Department of Children’s Services.
Duc Huynh searched for his sister-in-law for about half an hour. He was worried, he said, but hoped she would eventually phone home, as she had before after failing to show up at an appointed place.
Sure enough, Hang Tran telephoned at 9 p.m. from a supermarket near the mall, and Duc Huynh picked her up. Meanwhile, the family had learned of Trinh’s abandonment from neighbors who were interviewed by police earlier that day. The officers were able to trace the family by calling a physician whose business card was in the diaper bag.
Duc Huynh, who speaks limited English, called police that night, but did not speak to detectives because they had already left for the day. Told by desk officers to call the Department of Children’s Services, he learned from a clerk there that he would have to wait until after Labor Day to speak to a social worker about Trinh, he said.
Relieved that at least the child was safe, the family went to church as usual on Sunday morning. Hang Tran was arrested as she emerged from services, and Melissa was whisked into protective custody.
Since then, “I cannot sleep, no one can sleep until we have the children,” said Hang Tran’s mother, Huong Nguyen.