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COLUMN ONE : Learning to Tell Custom From Abuse : Children’s welfare officials are working with immigrant parents to clear up cultural misperceptions that may lead to false reports of trouble.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Her first thought when police arrived was that her two youngest children were in trouble. Then the recent immigrant from Ho Chi Minh City realized that she was the reason for the visit, prompted by concern over the angry-looking red streaks on her 6-year-old son’s neck and temples.

Luckily, it didn’t take long for authorities to confirm that the marks were from coining, a common Vietnamese practice of massaging away fevers and aches with a heated coin or piece of metal that draws blood to the surface of the skin.

“Everybody has it done. You feel good after,” the Northridge woman explained recently.

Instead of being prosecuted on abuse charges or having her son placed in foster care, the middle-aged mother of nine received three visits from a Vietnamese social worker from the Los Angeles County Department of Children’s Services. They chatted in their native tongue and he explained some American dos and don’ts on parenting. Meanwhile, following routine procedure, he discreetly made sure the child was safe.

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Case closed.

As Southern California’s immigrant population and cultural diversity continue to swell, authorities are getting better at differentiating misunderstood customs from potential abuse, and at working with parents who have yet to learn that some child-raising practices in their homelands are not socially acceptable here.

As a result of culture clashes and a 24% increase in calls to the Department of Children’s Services hot line in recent years, the agency now emphasizes bilingual skills when recruiting workers and requires training in cultural sensitivity. (Department Director Peter Digre estimates that his staff encounters up to 16 languages regularly, although English and Spanish predominate.)

When trouble arises, the department’s 18 general family preservation programs allow children to remain at home while pairing families with caseworkers who know their language and culture.

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Some local experts attribute the increased calls to an overall rise in family strains caused by a bad economy and to heightened public awareness, but also to the racism and ignorance simmering within the county’s cultural potpourri.

“The suspicion of people who are different sets up a predisposition to see parental neglect where it would not be seen if the people were like yourself,” said Rino Patti, dean of USC’s School of Social Work.

The Department of Children’s Services, which does not keep statistics on all ethnic groups represented among its clients, says immigrants are only a fraction of the families it monitors.

But sorting out misperceptions makes the role of culture “extremely important and challenging and complex and . . . one of the big priorities we struggle with every day,” Digre said.

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The innocent but sometimes baffling practices confronting police, social workers and judges can range from coining to arranged teen-age marriages to swatting unruly children with sticks, as common in some cultures as was spanking with belts in Depression-era America.

For example, one case of alleged sexual abuse involved a rare custom practiced by a San Gabriel Valley man originally from an island off Taiwan. In “the kissing of the flower,” the father held up his 6-year-old daughter before relatives and briefly kissed her vagina to mark the passage from infancy to childhood.

Years later, the father, whom police describe as a professional, was arrested and his then-preteen daughter was briefly placed in foster care after she described the experience at school to horrified friends and teachers.

Los Angeles County sheriff’s Sgt. Tom Sirkel, who investigated the case, said he was perplexed at first. But after a few interviews and a little research, he concluded that there was nothing secretive or sexual about the gesture, which is openly performed with boys as well. The charges were dropped.

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“We have had some dilemmas,” said Sirkel, who is assigned to the child abuse detail. “Does the cultural behavior constitute a crime when done in the state of California? It may be parentally inappropriate in our eyes, but does it violate the law? Even if it violates the law, is prosecution the best answer?”

Some advocates for unassimilated parents say that despite the county’s best efforts, some of their clients remain victims of Western, middle-class bias.

“There’s dozens of cases in which the system, which is a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant-oriented system, has made bad calls,” said attorney Pete R. Navarro, whose private practice includes defending immigrant parents in the county’s Juvenile Dependency Court--where families monitored by the Department of Children’s Services are divided and reunited daily in one gut-wrenching hearing after another.

Navarro cited a Latina preschooler who was placed in foster care for two weeks after a day-care worker assumed that the birthmarks on her back were bruises and, adhering to the state’s mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse, notified the department.

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“The child had what we call . . . ‘la Mancha Mogolica,’ ” Navarro said, a Mongolian spot--a large, purplish birthmark usually seen among Asians, Native Americans or Latinos with Native American ancestry. He said the badly traumatized girl was returned to her parents after he initiated a court-ordered exam at Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles.

“The kid was released to her parents and DCS still wanted to intervene because of the emotional reaction she had to being separated . . . to give counseling,” Navarro said.

One Pacoima-based therapist recalled a large family from rural Mexico that became a Department of Children’s Services case after a school nurse found lice on one daughter--considered to be a warning sign of neglect. The children were allowed to remain at home, family counselor Alicia Trelles said. The mother and father--mortified at having their personal hygiene and housekeeping under official scrutiny--were referred to parent education classes and to Trelles, who works with El Nido, a nonprofit group that is part of the department’s family preservation network.

“That father’s role in the family and his power was completely reduced to nothing,” Trelles said. “He felt so embarrassed that he didn’t know how to do things in the city, in this country.”

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Had lice been found on a white, middle-class child, the nurse probably would have sent home a note explaining how to kill the common pest and that would have been that, said attorney Jo Kaplan, whose nonprofit, county-funded firm handles dependency cases for indigent clients.

For “people with language barriers, who are frightened and not used to dealing with people in authority, those cases are treated differently and the worst is presumed,” Kaplan said.

Poverty can play as much of a role as culture. About 75% of the department’s cases involve clients who are eligible for welfare, according to Digre.

“There’s no question in my mind that fewer resources make it more likely for abuse and neglect to occur,” said Commissioner Martha E. Bellinger, who reviews 35 to 40 cases a day from her toy-strewn bench in Dependency Court. “People get depressed and desperate in that setting. It leads to more substance addiction.”

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Sometimes, it is difficult for department workers to separate the effects of poverty and culture. For example, do parents sleep with their children because they can’t afford more space or because in some countries a shared family bed is the norm? Either way, Kaplan and Navarro said, it can be held against them and children are often kept in foster homes until their parents get them their own beds.

(A department official said sleeping arrangements alone “would never be an obstacle for a child returning home.” The issue should only arise in cases involving alleged sexual abuse, said department Police Director Renee Powers.)

Institutional bias against poor Latino and Asian parents recalls the experience of Southern and Eastern European immigrants at the turn of the century, USC’s Patti said. Back then, he noted, scores of children were taken from their parents in Boston and New York and sent to work on Midwestern farms by Protestant charities who were aghast at the way immigrants’ children were raised.

“A great deal has been written about the use of ‘child protection’ as a way of expressing in not-so-disguised fashion the racism or repugnance of the dominant white society for the habits of particularly southern, Catholic Europeans,” Patti said.

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He also sees a parallel in that era’s anti-Catholic movement with today’s backlash against illegal immigrants and concern “that they’re taking jobs that should properly go to Americans.”

“In those days, people feared Italians were taking jobs the good, sturdy white Americans should have had,” Patti said. “So the whole sense of these people was a sense of them threatening the American way of life, of diluting the values that good white Protestant Americans had created.”

Today, ironically, it is immigrant parents who are often appalled by American values and this country’s relatively lax standards of discipline.

Other factors can complicate matters. Under California’s broadly worded child protection laws, only simple spanking is generally considered appropriate; the use of a belt or a slap to the face, under certain circumstances, can be grounds for court intervention. Thus, corporal punishment generates many of the child abuse reports against unsuspecting immigrants who, like some Americans, may hit disrespectful children with sticks, shoes and fists--the way their parents punished them in their own countries.

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The pressures of assimilation often aggravate friction between children and parents, authorities say. “A lot of over-disciplining is due to the frustrations of what the Western world is doing to these kids,” said Los Angeles Police Detective Mike Houchen, who oversees child abuse investigations in West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. Many cases he sees involve Middle Eastern families.

“It’s very difficult to deal with parents and tone them down and say, ‘Hey, when in Rome. . . ,’ ” Houchen said. “All of a sudden, the police are involved in what has been a private domain for eons, especially in the East, where family matters are handled by family.”

In screening the 90 to 150 reports his office receives each month, Houchen looks at three main issues: whether marks were left on the child, the intent of the parent, and a history of complaints. It is common for him to leave matters with underlying cultural issues, especially first-time offenses, to the Department of Children’s Services rather than opening criminal investigations.

The county’s child welfare bureaucracy is also less inclined to separate families in which there is no clear-cut risk of physical or sexual abuse. Parents reported for hygiene, folk remedies, even corporal punishment are prime candidates for the family preservation programs, which emphasize education over separation. Joined with networks of community groups, the projects also help families gain housing, clothing and other essentials to help keep them together.

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So far, the 18 such projects involve about 3,000 children of all backgrounds in a third of the county, in areas that generate the most foster care candidates.

Fieldworkers also receive what the department calls “ethnographic training,” or instruction in the cultural nuances that can lead to tragic misunderstandings.

Among some cultures, for example, direct eye contact is considered rude and well-mannered people avert their eyes during conversation. But to an uninitiated American investigating possible abuse, that type of behavior could be misinterpreted as a sign of guilt or evasiveness, said Cecilia Reza, who heads the department’s American Indian Family Preservation Program.

That is the kind of miscommunication that the department is hoping to avoid. In the case of the Northridge mother who had coined her son, there was little room for misunderstanding, for instance, because her caseworker and his supervisor were Vietnamese. During the last of the social workers’ visits, the woman’s home, with its dimly lit shrine, simmering broth and crowing pet rooster, evoked the scents and sounds of their homeland, and everyone seemed relaxed.

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The men smiled knowingly as the woman demonstrated coining. First, she dabbed a strong-smelling oil onto an adult son’s back, then she briskly rubbed his skin with a piece of metal until a pattern of red streaks emerged. He said it did not hurt.

“When you catch the bad wind, you have to get the wind out,” the woman explained through workers Bao Truong and Phuoc (Frank) Nguyen, who heads the Asian/Pacific Island preservation project. What she meant, they said, was that the massage draws out the illness.

The woman added that although she still planned to coin her husband and grown children, she would no longer practice the home remedy on her school-age sons, as Truong and Nguyen had advised her. They smiled, satisfied that their mission was accomplished.

“We try to bridge the gap,” Nguyen said. “We don’t try to accuse.”

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