Shamed into silence

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Editor's note: This story contains graphic descriptions that may not be suitable for children and might be disturbing for some readers.

She struggled in the cold grass, sobbing and punching the boy who lay on top of her, but nothing made him stop.

She was only 12 years old, and she didn't want to be a bad girl. No, don't do it, she remembers begging him. I wanna go home.

She had headed to a barbecue with friends earlier that night, but somehow they got separated. She ended up in a St. Paul park with five boys she barely knew.

There in the dark, one of the boys yanked down her blue jeans before dropping his own baggy pants to his knees. He raped her while the others stood nearby, waiting their turn.

When the last boy had finished, she pulled her clothes back on, humiliated, exhausted, hurting. But even more devastating to her than the attack was the realization that it might have ruined her life.

By losing her virginity without marriage -- even violently, against her will -- she had violated a basic tenet of her Hmong culture. If her family found out, they would feel forever shamed. She feared her culture would require her to marry one of her attackers to save her reputation.

So she acted first. In the days that followed, she didn't tell anyone about the crime -- not her parents, not a doctor, not the police. Instead, she said, she called up one of the rapists.

Are you prepared to marry me? she asked the boy. Are you going to marry me?

Scores of Hmong girls in Minnesota -- some not yet in their teens -- have been raped or forced into prostitution over the past several years. Many of their attackers are Hmong gang members who go unpunished because shame keeps their victims from coming forward.

Records show that girls, many of them runaways, have been raped at Twin Cities-area farms, in motel rooms, basements, garages and closets. Some were threatened at gunpoint. Some were held down. Some were lured with methamphetamine, then prostituted to pay for the drug.

"It's a huge problem," said St. Paul Police Sgt. Richard Straka, who wrote an article on the topic for an FBI publication in 2003.

The problem isn't necessarily unique to the Hmong community. But it's impossible to compare the problem to other ethnic communities because data on victims, assailants and runaways is broken down only by race, not ethnicity.

A constellation of professionals, however, noticed the growing problem in the Hmong community. Teachers, social workers, law enforcers, prosecutors, medical workers and Hmong leaders have begun drawing attention to it.

St. Paul public schools have trained staff to spot Hmong girls who might be in trouble. Dozens of concerned professionals and community volunteers are meeting monthly as the Hmong Youth Task Force to brainstorm solutions. St. Paul police and Ramsey County sheriff's deputies have begun actively looking for Hmong runaway girls -- a departure from their previous runaway policy.

"We have an urgent situation with very young Hmong girls here in St. Paul that needs your attention," Raymond Yu, student services director for St. Paul public schools, says in a school training video. While the district tries to protect all students, Yu said, it's putting special emphasis on Hmong girls "because of the significant number of reports that we've heard from the St. Paul Police Department and the Ramsey County attorney's office."

Law enforcement and medical workers believe gang rape and prostitution in the Hmong community are more widespread than what they see. Studies indicate that Hmong victims are more reluctant to report the crimes.

Two years ago, pediatric nurse practitioner Laurel Edinburgh became so disturbed by the pattern of brutality she saw in her job treating young rape victims that she started collecting information. In a preliminary analysis, she found that the Hmong girls treated at her St. Paul clinic were about six times more likely than other victims to have been raped by five or more people.

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