Documenting a hidden crisis, case by case

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Laurel Edinburgh is a St. Paul pediatric nurse practitione who works with young Hmong girls that have been traumatized by rapes and exploitation. She's pictured talking with colleagues in a 2005 file photo.

Photo: Stormi Greener, Star Tribune

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On any given day, the shy girls come one by one into Laurel Edinburgh's St. Paul medical office, some crying, some afraid, many ashamed.

They sit down and Edinburgh scoots up to them on a rolling stool, bending her small frame to meet them at eye level.

Quietly, she listens to their stories of horror.

A St. Paul pediatric nurse practitioner who examines child sexual-assault victims, Edinburgh, 36, has heard countless stories about brutal rapes. But when police started sending more Hmong girls her way in 2003, she noticed a difference.

They were younger than the other girls -- many were 11 or 12 instead of in their teens. They told of large groups of boys lining up to rape them. They talked about threats of being killed. "These are some of the worst-abused children I've seen," she said. "The brutality ... was really different."

Thoughts of the girls kept creeping into her mind. She sought to figure out what could be done for them. She started talking to health professionals, and a professor told her she needed to document the problem to get funding. It set her on a months-long quest.

She spent days burrowing through files at her clinic, the Midwest Children's Resource Center, and compiled data on certain children seen there. At night, she would put her own kids to bed and go back to the office to read more files. She went in on weekends, too.

Edinburgh's research provides the only statistics available comparing Hmong victims to other sexual-abuse victims. Her numbers show that Hmong victims were six times more likely to have been raped by five or more people.

Her center, a division of Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, has been awarded four grants totaling about $84,000 to follow some of the girls. She, a staff member or students work with them and their parents, making sure they receive counseling and other follow-up care after the clinic examines them.

In January, she presented her findings in San Diego at an international conference on child mistreatment.

She hopes the health care community will take notice. Locally, she said, she already sees small differences: Government health agencies agreed to help two Hmong girls in January who probably would have slid under the radar a year ago.

One girl received mental health treatment because she kept running away with men who called her. Another was taken to court for child protection because her parents hadn't made sure she was getting treatment for ailments.

"It's not by leaps and bounds, but it's by steps. But people are listening, whereas I think before, people weren't doing anything, it was sort of like head in the sand," Edinburgh said. "At the moment, I'm feeling hopeful."

The writers are at plouwagie@startribune.com

and dbrowning@startribune.com.

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