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Concocting a Cultural Excuse for Child Abuse

When it comes to the bad things adults do to children, Shayla Lever thought she was beyond being shocked. Every day, a numbing load of 30 new cases comes across her desk as director of the Child Abuse Prevention Office for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Yet what she heard from a school principal about one 8-year-old boy really shook her up. This articulate Latino kid had complained to his teacher that he didn’t like what his mother was doing to him in the shower. Mommy touched his private parts, reported the boy, who had earlier caused concern by inappropriately touching his classmates.

Pretty routine, as abominations go. What stunned school officials was the explanation they later got from a Los Angeles County social worker assigned to the case.

The caseworker, who is Latino, told the worried principal she “needs to understand that in the Hispanic community this is how parents teach boys about masculinity.” So this wasn’t child abuse, I guess. It was just child-rearing, Latino-style.

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Shayla Lever was appalled.

“I’ve been doing child abuse for 25 years,” she told me. “And I’ve never, never heard this.”

She’s not alone. Neither had the health professionals, parents, friends and co-workers I’ve talked to about the case. Nobody could even imagine a Latina mother doing such a thing to make her son more macho.

“My gosh, this one’s new on me!” said Jose Cervantes, who has practiced clinical psychology for 25 years, including a five-year stint as director of a family counseling clinic for Latinos in Santa Ana.

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Far be it from me to criticize social workers for trying to be culturally sensitive. No doubt they must encounter myriad unfamiliar practices in this multicultural melange we call Southern California. But it’s one thing to comprehend and communicate cultural differences; it’s quite another to concoct them.

The Latina mothers I know would sooner be turned to salt than to engage in such a perverse rite of passage. So where in the world is the county getting this sick stuff?

Due to privacy concerns, no one would identify the boy or his school. The county wouldn’t even let me interview the social worker or his supervisors. But Anita Bock, the new chief of Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services, did discuss the issues in general. She told me she had heard of this maternal practice before but considers it unacceptable.

“It’s some sort of holding of the genital area while commenting on the fact, ‘You’re going to be a real man; you’re going to be just like Papi,’ ” said Bock, adding that the practice may be rooted in Latino pride of male prowess.

Oh, puh-leeeze! That’s so exotic. Hasn’t the county figured out yet that Latinos are part of Western civilization? They’re not some pagan tribe with bizarre parenting customs you read about in National Geographic.

Cloaking bad behavior in a cultural mantle keeps abusers from taking responsibility for their actions, says Cervantes, the psychologist who practices in Orange and teaches at Cal State Fullerton. It offers them a handy rationale: “Sorry, it’s my culture; I can’t help it.”

It’s hard to say exactly how often officials consider cultural explanations in responding to abuse allegations, but Bock notes that many cultures have “some little quirks.”

In any case, Bock said the county is required by law to protect children; culture can’t excuse abuse under any circumstances. But if abuse or neglect is not legally established, the practice is for social workers to educate parents, explaining that some customs are not acceptable here and should be changed.

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“It’s a fine line we walk between acknowledging cultural differences, even as we educate people, and do it respectfully,” she said. “You have to respect that they thought it was OK, in order to get the parent to work with you.”

As for this boy, he was moved to a different school by his mother after she learned he was being questioned by authorities late last month, the district reported. My inquiries sparked a high-level county meeting about the case on Feb. 18. Afterward, Bock told me the boy had been ordered to undergo a medical examination, but the results are confidential.

Lever, the district official, was so perplexed about this issue she consulted the real experts--a group of Latina mothers from L.A. Unified’s parent committee on child abuse. They were outraged by the county’s ascribing to Latino culture a parenting practice that struck them exceedingly strange.

“That is abuse,” said Sandra Macias, committee member and mother of three young boys. “and abuse cannot be a tradition.”

Finally. Some common sense.

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Agustin Gurza’s column appears Tuesday and Saturday. Readers can reach Gurza at (714) 966-7712 or agustin.gurza@latimes.com.


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