Although many immigrants and refugees may perceive their new lives in the United States as a fresh start, frequently, struggles for newly arrived parents just begin upon arrival. These challenges are vast and complex, and often conflict with core cultural practices that guide one of our most fundamental and universal responsibilities: raising children.
Judge Lisa Bloch Rodwin is a family court judge who has a great deal of experience in adjudicating these issues for immigrants and refugee parents. In 2010, one incident proved to be a catalyst for action.
A mother from a central African country had recently arrived in the U.S. with her 14-year-old daughter. Prior to arriving, she had arranged her daughter’s marriage to a man in his 20s living in Ohio. This was a common practice in her country.
After discovering her mother’s intentions, the daughter became distraught. She reached out to an acquaintance, who brought the matter to the attention of Child Protective Services (CPS), the governmental department often first to respond to reported incidents of child abuse.
In accordance with their mandate, CPS temporarily removed the daughter from her mother’s home and placed her in protective custody until the situation could be resolved.
The mother, who spoke limited English, came to court officials in a panic at her daughter’s disappearance, suspecting that her daughter had been kidnapped.
“That’s what happens in some of these countries,” Judge Rodwin lamented. Officials were unable to explain to the mother what had happened, because they didn’t have the appropriate translators. “Finally we used ‘Language Line’ [a telephonic translating service] and were able to resolve the matter.”
The daughter was eventually returned to her mother.
The incident led Judge Rodwin, working with others, to create a partnership to identify the multitude of cultural differences and logistical needs facing refugees and immigrants in Western New York. The group is known as the Western New York Muslim and Immigrant Family Court Collaborative.
Judge Rodwin’s story highlights just a few of the obstacles that parents, their children, and service providers face.
For parents, perhaps one of the most difficult aspects is bridging cultural divides, which frequently contradict their own values and norms.
Asal Barem, who teaches a parenting class called “The Incredible Years” at Jewish Family Services (JFS), explained, “There are some things that these parents just don’t do. Like arguing. And, many of these children would never think to argue with their parents. We tell them to talk with their children [to resolve disputes]; to them these are not just discussions, they perceive it as really serious.”
When it comes to discipline, many immigrant and refugee parents are shocked to find that their disciplining methods may be prohibited under child protection laws.
More problems arise when government officials become involved. Most have simply never experienced this type of protocol in dealing with family disputes. This lack of understanding can cause panic and mistrust for parents when they first meet with CPS caseworkers.
Janeen El-Amin, who leads the CPS Refugee Unit, explained, “One of the biggest misconceptions parents have is that when we get involved, we’re going to take away their children…they think that if we put their children in foster care temporarily, they’ll never see their children again.”
“I think it’s a fundamental lack of trust in all government agencies,” said El-Amin. “Their history of persecution in their home countries was often at the hands of government officials and likely contributes to this mistrust.”
Overcoming this informational and experiential divide is imperative—for both the newly arrived and those professionals working with them.
Bridging the divide
There are increased services offered to provide greater instruction and support to these parents.
Barem offers a 12-to-14 week program that helps parents cultivate new skills and brings awareness of many of these child protection laws. These classes are for parents with children up to 6 years old. Topics discussed include discipline and school readiness.
Class instruction can walk a delicate line. “Parenting is very personal,” she said. “We’re not telling them how to raise their kids, but it can be sensitive. The parents are always very responsive.”
In addition, CPS and the Musilm and Immigrant Family Court Collaborative have—jointly and individually—held sessions at places such as the Burmese Community Center to provide legal orientation in familiar settings, seeking to establish mutual trust throughout the community.
Like Barem, El-Amin of CPS believes that parents are more responsive once they better understand the situation. “After I visit a family’s home and talk with them, it’s very common that I leave with at least one gift, like a soda,” she said.
Both the Collaborative and CPS are working towards training more foster parents. In situations where a child must be temporarily placed in protective custody, they can remain with families of similar backgrounds.
Educating parents is important; many professionals have also noted the need for their own cultural training. The Collaborative’s third objective—after educating parents and training more refugee foster parents—is developing this professional training.
As Judge Rodwin noted, there are many cultural nuances that can cause misunderstanding amongst professionals. “Like looking someone directly in the eye,” she said. “When you have someone in the courtroom looking down, that’s a sign of respect.” But people accustomed to American cultural norms may misinterpret this as lying or fearfulness.
Chris Anderson, administrative director of CPS, sees the need for greater training in his ranks as well, especially around issues such as trauma that greatly afflicts the population.
The legal framework surrounding cases can be complex. “In some cultures, you can take a branch off a tree and use it to [physically] discipline your child. Here, that can be considered a felony for abuse of the child,” Rodwin noted. “That can have severe consequences on your immigration status.” Criminal prosecution and/or conviction can result in deportation or otherwise prevent non-citizens from obtaining permanent residency or citizenship.
Clearly, professionals in family court must consider the legal implications of these cases carefully. “The child’s safety always comes first,” Judge Rodwin noted.
And parents and advocates must continue to take on the challenges. “Are we getting better? Yes. Do we still have challenges? Of course, but we don’t give up,” Judge Rodwin maintained.
Barem believes the parents are willing to work at this because their aspirations in the U.S. revolve around their children. “Ask any of these parents, ‘What is your reason for coming to America,’” she said. “They will say, ‘It’s my children…I want my child to have a better life.’” K
Jake Steinmetz, a frequent contributor to Karibu News, is the Canadian services manager at Vive, a program of Jericho Road Community Health Center.