Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 22, 2000

Cultures clashing in metro courtrooms--Old ways of doing things sometimes land immigrants on the wrong side of the law.
Milo Ippolito - Staff

When Young Lee was arrested for beating her stepdaughter black and blue with a cane, she claimed that's how Korean families discipline their children.

A Gwinnett County jury decided last week that Lee was the one who needed to be punished.

The caning case was the latest clash of cultures to reach a metro Atlanta courtroom. With tens of thousands of immigrants having poured into the metro area during the '90s, what to them are traditional child-rearing methods, health remedies and marital roles have sometimes run afoul of the law.

"There is an acute lack of awareness about cultural practices that gets people in trouble," says Julia Perilla, an advocate with the Latino Families at Risk Project, which works to prevent domestic violence among Hispanics. That lack of awareness applies to both sides --- immigrants and the American legal system, she said.

In the caning case, Lee testified she beat her teenage stepdaughter, who has cerebral palsy, for wearing loose blouses and torn jeans to school. Tried for child cruelty, Lee argued, in part, that caning is a traditional discipline practiced by conservative Koreans. Three Korean church pastors testified that they saw nothing wrong with the beating.

But after viewing photos of the dark bruises and red stripes covering the teen's body, a jury convicted Lee. She faces five to 20 years in prison.

The stepmother took the traditional punishment to an extreme, said Korean-born Gwinnett police Officer Christopher In, who assisted in the investigation.

"Even in Korean culture, it is beyond reasonable," In said. Still, In recalled being smacked on the hands and legs with a stick by schoolteachers as a child in South Korea.

While Georgia law gives parents the right to use reasonable corporal punishment to discipline a child, many immigrants have difficulty understanding the legal limits, observers say.

Gwinnett Magistrate Judge Chung Lee said tensions can run high in homes where parents insist on holding onto traditions while their kids just want to be American teenagers.

"Korean parents have to come to the United States and learn American culture," he said. "At the same time, Korean kids have to learn about Korean culture and understand why the parents think that way, and find a neutral ground."

Sometimes cultural practices with no violent intent also can be perceived as child abuse. Such is the case with a Vietnamese home remedy for chills and body aches. A coin or spoon is used to scrape the skin to bring the bad blood to the surface, explained Binh Le, an interpreter in the Gwinnett County courts.

"It's a tradition handed down from generations," Le said. "A lot of the doctors who have never seen that, they freak out because it does look like whip marks."

Cultural differences have the potential to end in an immigrant's deportation.

A 1996 federal law requires the deportation of legal immigrants who have been sentenced to at least one year in jail or on probation. The goal was to oust immigrants convicted of crimes of drugs and violence, but in metro Atlanta the law has led to deportation proceedings against an Ethiopian who stole a sandwich and a Nigerian who swiped two boxes of doughnuts.

Sometimes the clash with the law stems from a simple dispute among neighbors --- with a cultural twist. In several metro Atlanta communities, immigrants have been accused of animal cruelty by neighbors who witnessed them slaughtering livestock in their yards.

In November, a Hispanic family tied a goat to a neighbor's fence in Smyrna. The neighbor called police. Officers told the Hispanic family it could not have livestock in the city.

"They resolved the problem by killing the goat," said Smyrna Officer Tony Leonard. "They invited me to have a piece."

A dispute erupted in Suwanee in 1998 when a couple tried to slaughter and barbecue a goat in a subdivision.

"That usually tends to end up registering complaints from neighbors," said Gwinnett Planning and Zoning Director Mike Williams. "They just don't know. Once they're informed, they're usually pretty cooperative about correcting the problems. Most of the immigrant population wants to follow the rules."

Staff writers Mark Bixler, Christopher Quinn, Bill Montgomery and Ralph Ellis contributed to this article.

Foreign-born population, 1990: 116,000
Percent of total population: 3.9 percent
Foreign-born population, 1997: 171,000
Percent of total population: 4.6 percent
Source: Census Bureau

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