In some Asian countries, the concept of “child abuse” is not a common one. But Asian Pacific Islander American children are among the estimated 5 percent of American children who are victims of abuse and neglect annually.
In many Asian countries, parents have near-absolute power to discipline their children, uphold particular social mores or encourage strict educational outcomes. This cultural value conflicts with the American legal system, which is set up to protect children from abuse or neglect.
Washington State law defines child abuse or neglect as: “the injury, sexual abuse, or negligent treatment or maltreatment of a child by any person” which harms “the child’s health, welfare and safety.” Negligence is “an act or omission which evinces a serious disregard of consequences of such magnitude as to constitute a clear and present danger to the child’s health, welfare and safety.”
A non-accidental physical injury (whether temporary or permanent) involves bruising, burns, fractures, bites, internal damage, dental injuries, auditory harm, eye or brain damage. A mental injury includes harm to the child’s intellect, psychology, or emotions. These mental injuries may stem from emotional rejection, isolation, ignoring, frightening or corrupting a child. Sexual abuse may involve indecent liberties, molestation, sexual exploitation, sexual misconduct, and rape. Neglect involves the failure to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, health care, or supervision. It may involve abandonment or reckless endangerment.
The diversity of Asian Americans in terms of countries of origin, values, languages, religions, socioeconomic statuses, educational levels, occupations, and levels of acculturation means no over-arching generalizations may be made with any accuracy. And families each have their own unique features.
The lack of professional childcare may affect many immigrant families who may not be able to afford quality childcare. In such cases, children may be left at home alone or with untrained babysitters; many are brought to workplaces, which may not be designed to accommodate the presence of children. Others may dress their children with pajamas or slippers as street clothes, which may be appropriate in some Asian countries but not in the U.S. In some Asian cultures, parents sharing a bed with children (of a certain age) is not considered sexualized.
Rsearch on child abuse and neglect in the API community includes some of the following family structures that may allow abuse or neglect: respect for the father as someone with unlimited power; alcohol or drug abuse by one or both of the parents; a family culture of abuse or violence; avoidance of shame and bringing honor to a family; a traditional vertical parent-child relationship structure (with expectations of filial piety); family isolation from the larger society, with no discussing family issues with those on the outside, and unrealistic expectations of children (such as their caring for younger siblings or supporting a high-pressure family business).
Many immigrant families (some dealing with traumas from their experiences prior to reaching the US) face demoralization at having to take on menial jobs; living in dangerous and impoverished neighborhoods; facing racism and non-understanding from neighbors, and the pains of social transitions. Many families look to education as a stepping-stone to higher social attainments and therefore pressure their children and grandchildren to such achievements.
While some view acclimating to the larger society as a benefit, some research suggests that more domestic violence occurs with acculturated Asian Americans who are “socialized into violence.” Intergenerational differences in terms of acculturation often leads to strife, with tensions between conservatism and liberalism, collectivism vs. individualism, and authoritarian parenting vs. more laissez-faire parenting.
Some Asian American families prefer homeopathic and Eastern medical treatments, particularly where the high cost of Westernized medical care would be difficult for the family. These treatments may include the preparations of special foods or drinks, the application of herbs and poultices, and other endeavors.
Sometimes, this reliance on folk medicine may delay medical treatment, which may be considered medical neglect. Some traditional healing practices involve the extraction of illness from the body by applying heated cups, coins or spoons to the body, which may result in bruising and abrasions.
Some common worldviews may result in the belief that suffering is fore-ordained or fated, which may encourage passivity in the face of abuse.
For many Asian Americans, particularly those in the first and second generations, there may be an entrenched mistrust of government—from their countries of origination (for immigrants who are fearful of putting their immigration status at risk) and others who may be acculturated in the idea of intrusive government.
Research has found a reluctance to seek professional help for emotional or mental health challenges among the API populations. Many individuals worry about the cultural insensitivity of mainstream counselors. Family members may worry that reaching out to child welfare professionals may result in an invasion of privacy and shaming by the system. Others fear the traumatic removal of a child from his or her nuclear family. Still others, when faced with potential child abuse, may discuss these issues with a local pastor instead of social service personnel.
Professionals in public health suggest protecting against child abuse by strengthening family bonds and developing stronger communications skills. Support for the family includes respect for parental authority and the reinforcement of cultural values. They encourage parental resilience against stress, and promote the use of multi-generational and multi-lingual education about the standards for child welfare and care. There should also be endeavors to reduce the acculturation gap between parents.
8 Facts About Child Abuse
Seattle’s API Women and Family Safety Center (APIWFSC) Executive Director Lan Pham shares her insights.
- “It should be understood that there are many, many child abuse cases that go unreported.”
- “People who abuse their partners (verbally, emotionally, physically) often also abuse their children.”
- “In cases of sexual assault (SA), we generally see victims of child abuse/molestation many years after the abuse. This is because most of the times, victims feel too “shameful,” “do not want to relive the trauma,” or “do not want to punish the perpetrator, who might be someone close … Statistics reveal that over 80 percent of perpetrators are people that the victim knows.”
- “The cases of human trafficking-related crimes against children are the buying and selling of children for sex work, and the exploitation of poor children in forced labor.”
- “Parents should not only teach their children about “stranger danger,” but also teach them about danger with the familiar, how to handle unwanted touching and uncomfortable situations, local resources, and how to call for or get help.”
- “There are many challenges in addressing child abuse in our community: lack of information about child protection laws, lack of exposure to alternative parenting style, abusive learned behavior or socialization, cultural perception about the role that children play in society, idea that child rearing is a “family business” and no one else should be involved, exploitation of children and the vulnerable, and so forth.”
- “To the contrary to what most people think, child abuse – the kind that you think is beneficial to the child has less to do with teaching the child good behavior, but more to do with the parent gaining control and taking out anger and frustrations. Children who are abused grow up to be depressed, angry, have low self-esteem, high risk for suicide, more violent tendencies, or are more likely to becoming victims to other types of abuse.”
- “Parenting is not easy. No parents are perfect. This means, that if your intent is to be an effective parent, you have to actively want to learn and also train yourself to be the type of parent – the type of person – that you want your child to emulate.”
Lan Pham may be reached at
Asian Counseling and Referral Service
Chinese Information and Service Center
Within Reach (formerly Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies of Washington)
Korean Community Counseling Center
Parents’ Guide to Child Protective Services of the DSHS (in multiple languages)
Refugee Women’s Alliance
Washington State Child Care Resource and Referral Network
253-383-1735 / 1-800-446-1114 (toll free)
Washington Council for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect/ Children’s Trust Fund of Washington