Immigrant parents and spanking

New York – Standing still on 136th street, flushing, Luis Torres set his eyes on a three-storied white house. There his wife, Matilde Hureta, just brought their children back from school and was cooking dinner for the family. However, Mr. Torres could do nothing but miss his family from a distance because of an order of protection that keeps him away from the children.

Luis Torres stood in front of his house, but could not walk in to meet his family.

On February 24 this year, Luis Torres smacked his 6-year-old daughter, Azusena Hureta, and left a mark on her face. As a result, all eight children in the family were removed and placed in foster care. The couple was allowed to take their children home six months later on the premise that Mr. Torres moved out.

“Before this happened, I didn’t know the rules here in New York,” Mr. Torres said in Spanish. “This is how we discipline our children and how we were disciplined by our parents.” Luis Torres and his wife Matilde Hureta are both immigrants, respectively from Ecuador and Mexico. For them, corporal punishment, as the same for many immigrant parents, is absolutely normal. For the Family Court Judges, the explanation given by Mr. Torres is frequently heard, said Terrence Worms, the attorney at law specialized in child welfare.

“Sixty percent of my cases are immigrant families,” Terrence Worms introduced, “Excessive corporal punishment is the most common type of case.”

Since the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act was enacted in 1974, increasingly it is immigrant families who are losing their children to foster care due to the traditional way of child-rearing.

The Law Does Not Spoil the Parents Who do Not Spare the Rod

Compared to many European countries like Austria, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, which have banned corporal punishment against children within the household, parents in the U.S. have relatively greater power. Spanking is currently allowed in all the states in the U.S.. Nevertheless, many immigrant families still have difficulty in adjusting to the new environment because most countries in Asia and Latin America show more leniency over corporal punishment.

Legislative History on Child abuse and neglet

However, ignorance of the law doesn’t justify violation of the law. Though the constitution grants the parents the fundamental liberty to discipline their children, legal framework on parent-child relationship helps to balance the rights and responsibilities between the parents and the children who are unable to represent themselves, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In the state of New York, child abuse and neglect is defined by Article Ten of the Family Court Act. Attorney Worms explained that corporal punishment could be considered excessive if it leaves bruises or marks. The case would be elevated to abuse if the parents use objects, like stick or rod, to hit the children.

Even though the legal framework regarding child abuse and neglect was established several decades ago, many immigrants, like Luis Torres and Matilde Hureta who have been in the U.S. for fifteen years, have little understanding of the formal law.

“In New York City, immigrants have their own communities to live in,” explained Mr. Worms. “They neither need to speak English nor to go beyond their own culture.”

Disputes Over the Child Welfare System

Immigrant parents’ ignorance of the law does bring troubles, but there are also disputes over how the child welfare system works.

Once a report is made, Administration for Children’s Service, the social service agency of New York City, has the obligation to investigate. If the court opens at the time, ACS has to get the Family Court’s decision on whether the children are in imminent danger. If there is no time to go to court, or the court is closed at that time, ACS caseworkers get the approval from the manager to remove the children once they decide that the situation can be called imminent danger, according to the attorney.

ACS came to Luis Torres’ house with the police at 2:30 in the morning this February after they got a report from Azucena’s teacher, who is defined by law as the mandated reporter.

“They arrested me and took the children away,” said Luis Torres, “I didn’t slap Azucena on her face. The mark was an accident, but no one listened to me.”

Added Worms: “Family Court is civil court so that the standard of proof is very low, every bit of hearsay can be evidence. They don’t need to prove it.”

Some advocates believe that removal of the children, for most of the time, causes more harm than spanking. “Admittedly there’re few crazy parents who really hurt their children, but you don’t need to destroy a thousand to save the one,” said Rolando Bini, the founder of Parents in Action, an organization that aims to help immigrant parents whose children are removed.

Mr. Torres believes that his children are not taken well care of in foster care.

The decision to remove the child is made so easily because the mission of ACS is to protect the child. “I understand that they’re worried about the child, but once ACS gets a report, they tend to think how to prove it instead of whether this is true,” said Attorney Worms, “that should be

Foster parents didn't change diapers for the baby boy.changed.”

Mr. Torres was greatly frustrated by the sudden removal of the children. He and his wife could only meet the children once a week. The visits

made him more miserable. “The children were not well taken

care of,” he said, “they didn’t change the diaper for the baby boy. Other children were dirty and not properly dressed.”

Language and Cultural Barriers as Ongoing Challenges

The couple could not express themselves despite their dissatisfaction because they both do not speak English. Though an interpreter was assigned by the court, Matilde said that the translation was too poor for them to understand.

“The system definitely needs reform,”said Flora Huang, “ACS now is trying to involve the communities in the process of decision making. We want to have people who do not only speak the language but also understand the culture of the communities to help decide what is the best for the family.”

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