Death In The Family

First Khoua Her asked the clans for help. Then she went to the courts. By the time police found her six children dead, she'd run out of places to turn.

In the middle of page 59, Khoua Her smiles out from the pages of Johnson High School's 1991 yearbook. At first glance she is virtually indistinguishable from her peers--just another healthy, good-looking junior. But a closer look reveals a hint of melancholy. The thin shoulders are hunched slightly forward, and the broad, brave smile doesn't reach the eyes. If the photo had been a full-length shot, it might have explained the expression on her face. At 17 Her was pregnant with her fourth child.

Seven years later a photo of Khoua Her made the front pages. In this one Her, now 24, looked almost twice that age; her once long, jet-black hair had been cut to chin length and sported the brassy glow of a recent henna job. Under the thick fringe, her eyes were vacant, her mouth slack, and the baggy mock turtleneck had been replaced by what appeared to be a hospital gown. This was the mug shot police took September 3, after they arrested Her for allegedly killing her six children.

In the past year, the Twin Cities Hmong community has been wracked by a series of highly publicized tragedies. In December 1997 five young men were arrested in connection with the rapes of at least four girls they'd lured through teenage chat lines. This past spring four men and two juveniles were convicted for the allegedly gang-related rapes of nearly a dozen more girls. Over the summer a 13-year-old Eau Claire girl was arrested for killing her newborn, and another 13-year-old was raped and killed in Brooklyn Park. In late September a Hmong father of seven committed suicide; police believe he may first have murdered his wife, who is missing to this day.

Janet Hamline

But no case drew more attention than that of Khoua Her. It captured national headlines and sparked debate locally about teen marriage,

domestic abuse, welfare reform, and child protection. In the days after her arrest, news reports were dominated by statements from her ex-husband and his clan, condemning her as "an evil stepdaughter" who was "short-tempered" and who "should have killed herself" instead of the children. Community leaders added that Her had disrespected the traditional clan system. And social welfare officials took pains to announce that they'd had no way to prevent the disaster: "I don't think that we can conclude that any one organization or one person failed, or that [she] slipped through anything," Ramsey County Human Services Director Tom Fashingbauer told the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

More than two months later, much about Khoua Her's life remains a mystery. Most documents relating to the case are sealed. Her's attorney, Ramsey County Public Defender Bruce Wenger, has not allowed the media to interview her, and neither he nor Ramsey County prosecutor Chris Wilton will discuss details of the case on the record. Many of those who knew Her before the deaths--including her husband and his family--refused to speak to City Pages.

Still, what can be discovered about the case suggests a story far more complex than that conveyed in the barrage of headlines that followed Her's arrest. Public records and the accounts of dozens of people in the Hmong community--including some who spoke to Her extensively after the children's deaths--yield a portrait of a woman whose life went awry almost from the moment it began. They also indicate that Her repeatedly sought help, first from family and clan and then from police and the courts. Neither system appears to have been able to help her. Many of those who know Her say her experience was not that different from those of many other Hmong women--until the day six children were found strangled in a small townhouse on Timberlake Road.

Khoua Her was 9 months old and living in the mountains of Laos when her parents separated. In a traditional Hmong divorce, one spouse is typically assigned fault for the breakdown of the marriage while the other--in Her's case the father--is awarded custody of the children.

Nhia Khoua Her soon remarried; his new wife disliked Khoua immensely, says Mee, a local legal professional who spoke extensively with Her after her arrest. (Mee refused to have her real name used, fearing repercussions in the American courts and in the Hmong community.) "She would hit her and call her names," Mee recounts. "Even though she had a father, she was like an orphan. No one loved her." When Her was 4 years old, the family fled Laos for Ban Vinai, a refugee camp in Thailand.

For most Hmong families, the transition from rural life to encampment was jarring. In their native mountains, they'd spent their days working the land and tending livestock. In the camps, explains Mee, who lived in a camp from the time she was 5 until she was almost 9, "There were no jobs, no money, and only public rations. It was much easier on the kids, but the adults would worry about what the family would have to eat that day and how they would find clothing for the children."

Privacy, too, was at a premium. Refugees lived in barracks in which each family, regardless of size, was allocated a section that measured about 10 by 12 feet. There was no indoor plumbing, and all cooking had to be done outside. The only commodities in plentiful supply, says Mee, were time and gossip.

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