Becoming well-known in the Hmong community is one way law enforcement officials can help encourage rape victims to step forward. In this file photo, St. Paul police Sgt. Richard Straka is pictured at a Hmong New Year's festival.
TOM SWEENEY, STAR TRIBUNE
Shamed into silence
- Article by: Pam Louwagie and Dan Browning
- Star Tribune
- March 23, 2012 - 5:05 PM
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.
She used her St. Paul clinic's files dating from 1998 to 2003 to analyze 245 cases of 10- to 14-year-olds who had been sexually abused by people outside of their family. Of those, 30 were Hmong girls, all but two of whom had been treated at the clinic in 2003, after investigators started referring Hmong girls there. Because it's not a random sample, the clinic's numbers cannot be used to gauge the relative size of the problem. But they shed light on the nature of the attacks.
"The sexual abuse experiences of very young adolescent Hmong girls were markedly more severe than those of their peers," Edinburgh wrote in a paper she presented at a conference in January.
A growing problem
A Star Tribune analysis using an FBI list of Hmong surnames shows that between 1999 and June 30, 2005, about 76 Hmong men and 21 Hmong teens were charged with sexually assaulting or prostituting girls in Ramsey County, which is home to nearly 60 percent of the state's Hmong.
Prosecutors counted 59 victims believed to be Hmong in those cases, but say there were other victims who didn't cooperate and whose assaults weren't charged. Fifteen victims were of other ethnicities.
Nearly all of the victims were young. More than half of the defendants were charged with crimes against victims younger than 13 years old; 81 of the 97 were charged with attacks against victims 15 and younger.
Secrecy and shame keep victims from coming forward, and authorities believe there are many more crimes undetected. So police search for possible victims.
"You've got to go out to the parks, go to the hotels, work curfews, work truancy," said Minnesota Gang Strike Force investigator Kevin Navara, who has concentrated on Asian gangs for six years.
Tru Thao, a Ramsey County social worker who often deals with runaway Hmong girls, said the problem of gang rape and prostitution is huge. "You know, to be honest, it's not something new. It's just been escalating," she said.
More Hmong refugees have arrived in Minnesota this year as part of a resettlement of 5,000 people, and officials worry about gangs victimizing them.
Der Her, volunteer coordinator at Ramsey County Sexual Offense Services, said the refugees will be "easier prey."
But Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul, said new immigrants are more connected to their parents and traditions. "I don't have any concerns that they're going to fall prey," she said. "They have been yearning for an opportunity to come to this country. They're going to be the best students. They're going to be the best workers. They're going to fight their darndest."
Moua acknowledged that running away is a problem in the Hmong-American community, as are gangs and sexual assaults. "I am alarmed by every aspect of it," she said.
But she said that no one knows the relative scope of those problems because there are no good statistics. Moua said she would like to sponsor a bill in the Legislature to fund solutions, but she needs a better grasp of how big the problem is.
Money for after-school programs that once helped keep kids occupied has dwindled. And the federal government turned down a request from Edinburgh last fall to help victims get therapy and other services. Her employer, Midwest Children's Resource Center, a division of Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, cobbled together other grants from foundations.
Police and others who see the problem up close are frustrated.
Until recently, the larger community hadn't shown an interest in solving the problem, said Straka, a former state Gang Strike Force officer who now works Hmong rape and prostitution cases for St. Paul police. "I don't know why. Maybe it's because they are Hmong. Maybe it's because these are not little white girls from the suburbs."
The St. Paul 12-year-old who was gang-raped in the park didn't marry any of her attackers. Authorities learned of the attack from someone else, and she eventually told them her story in great detail. More than seven years later, shame keeps her from telling some family members what happened that night. She agreed to tell her story to the Star Tribune, but she wanted her identity to remain private.
She left her house that night with trusted friends, she said. But a little later, when they piled into cars to go to the barbecue, she ended up the only girl in a car full of older boys.
Members of the Asian Crips gang took her to a deserted area of Battle Creek Park. As one began kissing her, she sensed that things were turning ugly. She considered fleeing, but she didn't think she could outrun them.
She told police that one boy walked her to a sprawling tree and then the five boys assaulted her, one by one. Two held her while a third raped her, she said.
Then they took her to another park in Cottage Grove and two of the gang members raped her again.
When she tried to resist another boy's attack, he went to his car and came back with a handgun.
You didn't give me love; I should kill you, she said he told her. She remembers hearing other boys trying to calm him down: Dude, don't do that! Don't shoot her!
He fired. She heard the bullet split the air a few feet away.
"I just screamed really loud," she remembered. "I screamed forever."
Gang members told her that she'd been "raped in" to their group, she told police. At age 12, she was now an official Asian Crip Lady. She was terrified, she said, but she acted tough and hung around with the gang for about two weeks. She was afraid that if she didn't, they might come looking for her or hurt her family.
A few days into the ordeal, three gang members took her to a room in a Minneapolis garage and had sex with her again. She didn't fight, she said, because she knew it wouldn't matter.
When she limped into her house that night in pain, a relative noticed she was walking gingerly and surmised she'd had sex.
You're just a little slut, the girl says the woman told her.
By her second week of being with the gang, the girl said she had learned to anticipate trouble. When she saw gang members talking quietly and pointing to her and other girls, she feared they were plotting to rape again, so she hid.
One time she hid in a laundry room. "I can hear them saying, 'Where's the other girl?' ... But, you know, I kept quiet," she remembered. "I was shaking. I cried to myself."
Two weeks after the rapes in the parks, police arrested some of the gang members on a tip from another victim.
Ten gang members eventually pleaded guilty to sex crimes. Each received prison terms ranging from about 3Â½ years to more than 11 years, although four were sentenced as juveniles and their prison time was suspended. Prosecutors listed only a few victims when they charged the group, but authorities believe there were more. Other victims wouldn't cooperate because of the stigma, said Chris Wilton, who prosecuted the case in Ramsey County.
In these rape cases, often the victims "will just simply indicate that either nothing happened or they don't want to talk about it," Wilton said. "And so then you're kind of at a dead end."
The girl is afraid that publicly acknowledging that she was one of the victims will hurt her reputation. Even after counseling, she turns some of her anger inward.
"I do blame myself for parts of it," she said. "When they threatened me, how come I just didn't tell them that I'd rather die?"
An emerging problem
Minnesota police got their first indication of the gang-rape problem in fall 1997, when a girl at a Hmong New Year's party told Sgt. Straka that boys had thrown blankets over her and her friends, then raped them. They had met the boys -- Hmong gang members -- through a telephone chatline. Officials learned that at least four girls had been raped. Eight Hmong men and boys aged 15 to 21 eventually pleaded guilty to kidnapping or sex crimes.
Similar crimes have happened elsewhere. In a 1999 Detroit case, nine Hmong males pleaded guilty to sexual assault after raping four Wisconsin girls and holding them captive. A tenth male pleaded guilty on a related charge. That same year in Fresno, Calif., 23 members of a Hmong gang were indicted on 826 counts involving the rape and prostitution of nine girls. Eighteen were convicted or pleaded guilty in the case.
A clash of cultures may play a role in the crimes, some scholars and Hmong leaders say.
For instance, in Hmong homelands, a boy who wanted to marry a girl could get his friends or relatives to help him capture her. Even if he raped her, the assault could be forgiven if he married her. Ilean Her, executive director of the Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans, said she's afraid those practices get handed down in some families.
"Some [men] are going to end up in prison as long as the mentality is still there," Her said. "And lots of them are passing it on to their sons."
For the same reason, some Hmong mothers aren't sympathetic to daughters who have been raped, she said.
"The older ladies, they will tell you right away, 'When I was young, I was molested. And that's just what girls go through,' " she said.
Even if they resist, girls are blamed for allowing it to happen, studies say.
Moua said it's not strictly a cultural issue. Those who link Hmong gang rape and prostitution in America to Hmong culture are looking for excuses, she said.
"I don't think that Hmong culture is any more of an impediment to identifying solutions within the Hmong-American community than, say, culture is a factor in Catholic families or ... in the Latino community or ... in greater Minnesota in small farm families," she said.
Hmong culture does not condone gang rape or prostitution, she said, and others agree.
Some Hmong immigrants say American culture has been a bad influence. Gangs, violence and premarital sex have become big worries for Hmong parents, some of whom struggle with controlling their children.
Edinburgh said that nearly every Hmong girl she sees who has been raped or prostituted has at least one weeping parent.
"They're hurting," she said. "And they're hurting because they don't know how to help. They don't know what to do."
Gang rapes of young Hmong girls stand out for their relentlessness and brutality, prompting even experienced medical workers to reach for descriptions like "shockingly horrible."
Last November, a 16-year-old Hmong girl from the Twin Cities area bled so badly from a sexual assault in Winona that emergency workers airlifted her to Mayo Medical Center after she was found unconscious in an apartment.
Authorities allege in a criminal complaint that Sue Hang, an 18-year-old Winona man, admitted using a Blatz beer can to rape the girl, crushing the can in the process. Blood had soaked through two blankets and onto the carpet in the bedroom, according to the complaint. Hang was charged in Winona County District Court, as were a woman who was there that night, 19-year-old Armeelia Vang, and two juveniles. They are awaiting trial.
In a case in 2003, Hmong pimps tried out young girls, attempting to rape them to see whether their small bodies were large enough to accommodate adult customers, health workers said.
In traditional Hmong households, girls stay home, care for siblings, cook and clean. But in the United States, these girls sometimes rebel. They yearn to do what their American friends do, they say -- go to the mall, go to the movies. Many girls run away.
Generally, they don't travel far. The Hmong community is so tight-knit, and families are so large and sprawling that they can almost always stay with a cousin or a friend. Sometimes they go just a few blocks or a few miles.
One 16-year-old Maplewood girl was pressured briefly into prostitution when she ran away in 2000. At school, her non-Hmong friends chatted about going to the movies, but her parents wouldn't let her go.
She was "never allowed to go out," she said. "Not even with my Hmong friends."
One cold winter day, a 23-year-old St. Paul man picked her up near the clothing store where she worked.
She'd met him through some friends. That afternoon they drove around awhile, then stopped to play video games near the University of Minnesota campus. She told police he then described his "business."
He wanted to prostitute her. She refused.
"I didn't wanna do it, and he said that if I didn't do it he would just drop me off somewhere out in the cold," she said.
He took her to the Midway Motel in St. Paul, where she had sex for money with three strangers that night.
Afraid to go home, she stayed with friends for days, until one of them arranged to have her brothers pick her up. Her parents had reported her as a runaway.
Now 22, the girl said she has never told her parents exactly what happened.
"I just don't know what to say to her [her mother], because either way, you know, I ran away," she said. "Even if I told her I was being prostituted she would be like, 'You deserved it.' "
Afterward, she said, her uncle assumed she'd had sex and asked her if she wanted him to arrange a forced marriage. She declined.
The man was later convicted of promoting and soliciting to practice prostitution. Two of the three men in the motel pleaded guilty to engaging in prostitution. The third was convicted of a misdemeanor count in the case.
The episode still haunts her, she said. It drove her parents to become even stricter, limiting her contact only to cousins they thought were good influences.
"You do really get isolated," she said.
Slow to forget
Once a label is slapped on a girl, it's almost impossible to remove.
A 14-year-old St. Paul girl who was gang-raped in 1998 says the crime taught her how quickly news travels in the small Hmong community.
"After all this happened, I went to school. Everybody knew. They all just looked at me ... like, you know, 'She's just a slut. Don't look at her.' I felt really bad." Schoolmates called her names and beat up her best friend for defending her, she said.
Her family treated her differently, too. One family member doesn't want her to spend time with her younger siblings anymore, apparently afraid she might be a bad influence.
Now 21, she struggles with self-doubt, telling herself that "the past is the past. I'm a better person now." She tries to ignore what others might think.
It hasn't been easy. She believes she still hears whispering and snickers. She might be out shopping, she said, and encounter a Hmong person who gives her the look -- the cold, condemning expression that says she's worthless.
"They all just look at me like I'm just a tramp," she said. "I'm nothing but air."
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