Colliding cultures and child abuse

July 09, 1999|By Isaac Rehert

OUR SOCIETY is commendably concerned about nurturing and protecting our children. We pass laws against child labor and child abuse and work constantly to improve our schools.

But do our measures sometimes backfire? This is a true account of one involving child abuse that did.

It is the story of two immigrant families whose names I've changed for this article to protect their privacy. One family includes Thomas and his wife, who settled in Baltimore 15 years ago. The other family, which came from the same town as Thomas, consists of Mary and her son, Jacob, 12.

Mary speaks little English and struggles financially. Thomas and his wife have been like family to her, helping to pay her rent and providing transportation and a second home for Jacob.

More than once I asked Thomas why he was so helpful. His reply was simply, "In my culture, if we see somebody we know who needs help, we give it."

As most boys his age will do, Jacob began to shirk his schoolwork and his grades plummeted. Mary depended on Thomas to discipline the youth.

One evening, Jacob was at Thomas' home watching television. When Thomas asked the child if he had finished his homework, Jacob said that he had. Thomas soon discovered that the child was lying. It wasn't the first such incident. In anger, Thomas struck the child.

Thomas does not drink alcohol. He was cold sober when he lost his temper.

But he did not feel remorseful in explaining the incident to me. "In my culture, we teach our children to do what they have to do. I am like a father to this boy. I don't understand that in America a parent is not allowed to hit his child."

The next day at school, the boy told his teacher that his uncle had struck him, and he showed bruises on his shoulder to prove it. Following the law on reporting child abuse, the teacher notified police. That evening, when Thomas returned home from work, two police officers arrested him and carted him off to jail, where he had to spend the night. He was charged with child abuse and assault and ordered not to have any contact with the boy.

This clearly was done to protect the child. No one asked Mary whether she approved of this prohibition. In fact, she did not. She knew that Thomas was the only father figure Jacob had ever known, and that he provided the only discipline the boy would respect.

When Thomas informed me of what had happened, I said, "Thomas, that may be the way you do it in your culture, but you're in America now. You mustn't do it that way any more." He nodded as he answered, "I don't understand what's wrong with discipline, but if that's the law, I will never do it again." I recommended that Thomas, Mary and Jacob talk to a therapist, which they did, with Thomas footing the bill.

Thomas hired a lawyer to represent him against a charge that could have resulted in him being imprisoned for up to 10 years. The case was postponed a couple of times over six months, during which Thomas and Jacob never met.

Finally, Thomas' attorney was able to strike a deal. Thomas pleaded guilty and was placed on probation for two years. Immediately after the trial, Thomas went shopping with Mary and bought summer clothes for Jacob.

Sitting with me in my living room later, he said, "Explain it to me. In order to discipline the boy, to make him do his homework, I hit him and for that I am put in jail. I am not allowed to see him, even though his mother and he want to see me. Then, I am asked to plead guilty to a crime that could put me in jail for 10 years.

"I stand before a judge along with real criminals and I am put on probation as if I had been involved in robbing a bank. Is this the American way? Will you explain this to me?"

How would you answer Thomas?

Yes, we want to protect our children from abuse, but is this the way to go about it? Couldn't social workers handle such cases instead of the justice system?

Thomas is not the drunken boyfriend of an uncaring mother. He is a sober, hard-working, caring citizen who grew up in a different culture. After watching what has happened to him and this boy, I am not convinced that our way is better.

Isaac Rehert is a retired feature writer for The Sun.

Pub Date: 7/09/99

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