Ignorance of law no excuse for immigrant child abuse

Updated: 2014-05-27 11:11

By Chang Jun (China Daily USA)

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Ignorance of law no excuse for immigrant child abuse

Jinzhang Zheng, a 38-year-old Chinese American, recently made headlines. A criminal court accused the resident of Long Island, New York, of child abuse, neglect and several other felony charges while Zheng believed he was merely disciplining his child in a traditional Chinese way, with good intentions.

The father of two boys and one girl immigrated from China's Fujian province 20 years ago and now runs a family restaurant. On May 2 he reportedly kicked his 6-year-old daughter's backpack in anger, after learning from the girl's teacher that she had committed thefts in school. The kick left a rice-sized red scar on the youngster's face when the girl coincidentally turned her head back, according to court documents.

Later, when Zheng and his daughter were at home, he allegedly put the girl in the bathroom for a time out. According to the charges against him, he either used an igniter to threaten the crying 6-year-old, or threatened to send her back to China.

When Zheng went to school two days later to pick up his daughter, he was surrounded by five law enforcement officers and arrested. The family court judge also issued a child protection order restraining Zheng from physically seeing his children for one year.

"I've been working hard in the past 20 years, hoping I can bring a good life to my family and children," said Zheng, who is out on $150,000 bail and living with a friend. Facing two to six years' jail time if convicted, he said incarceration would be disastrous for his family.

Zheng proclaimed his love for his children, saying he did not realize the differing child rearing practices in the US and China would get him in trouble.

Zheng's case is not uncommon among immigrant Chinese families, said Lillian Zhang, an Alameda County domestic relations attorney. "The Asian parents may not know what child rearing practices are considered abusive or neglectful in the US," she said.

Asian American families, especially Chinese immigrant families, may unknowingly violate child welfare laws simply because of different cultural influences affecting how they raise children.

Adhering to the old Chinese saying, "spare the rod spoil the child", traditional parents tend to believe discipline and strict household rules help the young learn and succeed. Spanking, for example, has long been seen as an effective method of discipline in Asia, while it is banned in most US states.

A 2008 research study conducted by the School of Social Work at California State University - Los Angeles found that the most prevalent type of maltreatment experienced by Chinese immigrant children was physical abuse, and the rate of physical abuse was higher than in the general child welfare population in the US.

In Zheng's indictment, prosecutors also cited testimony from teachers of Zheng's two sons - the boys were often recipients of harsh parental criticism and often labeled by their father as "stupid pigs."

"I'm wronged if they (the teachers) therefore considered me a bad father," said Zheng, adding calling a person "stupid pigs" in their hometown Fujian is nothing but a symbol of intimacy. "I felt I'm suffering a huge injustice, but find at the same time it hard to defend myself."

Asian families traditionally are not as verbally or openly affectionate toward children as American standards expect families here to be, according to a report by the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families (CAC&F) in New York. Meanwhile, compared to the peer-like and equal parent-children relationship, traditional Asian American families are more hierarchical in nature.

The expectation that children are to be obedient and listen to their parents "might help explain why Zheng rarely commended his children with due praise," Zhang said. "Instead, he picked up scolding and rigidity as to demonstrate his parental authority." However, cultural differences in child rearing should not be used as an excuse to whitewash child abuse and neglect, attorney Zhu Yimin said. "Ignorance of the law is not a sufficient excuse and the safety of the child must be protected."

New immigrants need to become familiar with and abide by American child welfare laws, Zhu said.

In San Francisco, the Family Resource Center has launched a citywide initiative to educate new immigrants about parent-children relationships and parenting skills, program manager Winnie Kwei said.

Contact the writer at changjun@chinadailyusa.com.

(China Daily USA 05/27/2014 page2)