Silent Scream

A series of teen rapes shocks local Hmong parents into confronting a new culture: their children.

Locally, only three episodes of stranger rape in the Hmong community have reached the courts, all within the last year. In the first incident, three men broke into a St. Paul family's home, robbed it, and raped the mother and a 12-year-old daughter before leaving--possibly in an attempt to keep them from reporting the break-in. The crime's alleged mastermind was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The other two suspects agreed to testify against the ringleader and pleaded guilty to lesser charges.

The second series of cases occurred over several weeks ending last December. Members of a Hmong gang set up a telephone chat-line and used it to troll for victims, many of whom were as young as Mai. Nine young men were charged in connection with the cases. To date, six have been tried and convicted or have pleaded guilty. Of the three whose cases are still active, one is appealing his certification to stand trial as an adult, another is still in the process of being certified, and the third is being sought in connection with the case and is thought to be in California.

In the most recent series of cases--the one involving the March and April rapes of Mai and four other girls--10 young men have been charged. Seven have pleaded guilty and been sentenced to up to 11 years in prison. An eighth was expected to plead shortly before press time, and the other two are being sought.

Shannon Brady

It is this case, many of those who have worked with the victims or the suspects say, that most clearly shows the teens' selective hearing when it came to their elders' teachings: The perpetrators seemed to ignore rules that obligate men to the women with whom they have sex, while absorbing the idea that Hmong men are entitled to exercise control over women.

When Wang Vang--"Willow"--was arrested, he acknowledged he'd had sex with one of the rape victims, but insisted it was consensual. He'd been to a dance, he said, and afterward a group of kids went to one of his friends' houses. He had "a little intercourse" with a girl that night, and again "a day or a few days" later; then everyone went home. He had no idea how old the girl was, he said. "In the Hmong culture age did not matter."

In the months before the rapes came to the attention of police, Wilder's Dovenberg was counseling one of the future defendants, a juvenile. "The family had been working with us in a program for emotionally disturbed and violent teens," she says. "His parents had just given up and he was running wild. We tried to help them rein him in." The family's troubles, she says, are fairly common among her program's clients.

"The parents don't know how to call the police," she notes, "or they can't because they don't speak the language. They don't know how to call the Youth Service Bureau. It's hard for them to know where to go to find help."

Many Hmong parents, say Dovenberg and other counselors, expect their children's behavior to be governed by the fear of bringing dishonor to their families. But the concept of losing face doesn't mean much to Americanized kids. By the time counselors see them, frequently parents have given up.

"Often they've tried their own family resources, getting an uncle or an elder to talk to them," says Dovenberg. "They've done a lot of yelling, calling of names, threatening, making them stay in--that's one of the things they try a lot, especially with girls. They figure the only safe place is right here in the living room." The kids, by contrast, sometimes "don't see their parents as able to protect them. Many of them have not been treated very well in this country. They want to get into gangs to see some kind of safety."

For some families, the challenges begin with basic communication. Many Hmong parents speak little English, while their kids are no longer fluent in Hmong. "When there's a disagreement in the family, they can't understand each other linguistically," notes MayKao Hang, who heads the youth violence prevention program Hmoob Thaj Yeeb, or Hmong Peace, which is housed at the Wilder Foundation. "A lot of immigrant communities experience that in the first generation."

And language is only the beginning, echoes Dovenberg. "There's a terrible culture gap between these kids and their parents. In Hmong culture you only socialize with the kids in your family and with your closest cousins. These kids want to go to the mall."

The tension between old- and new-world expectations is strongest for girls, says Hang. They're expected to come home after school and help with housework and care for their siblings--an important job in families that often have six or more children. "There just aren't a lot of activities that Hmong girls are allowed to do," says Hang. "They're stuck with a lot of child-care duties. They're really bored."

In the chat-line cases, says Hang, the operators of the message center seem to have sought out girls who were especially isolated. Teens told her that "one of the ways to get [the line's] phone number was to get passed one, and that they were picking girls who were lonely, isolated. If you baby-sit six kids, and people know your mom goes to garden for three hours every day, you might be passed a number.

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