Project Proposal: Prevention of Wrongful Prosecution of Innocent Immigrant Parents

(Version 1.6)

Kirk Honda, M.A., LMFT

November 14, 2012


Due to system-supported culturally insensitive interpretation and enforcement of parenting laws, innocent immigrant parents are routinely and needlessly dragged through the Washington legal system.  The consequences are numerous including the traumatization of innocent families and the allocation of scarce budget resources investigating and prosecuting innocent families. 

At the beginning of this proposal, a true story will be told to demonstrate how the current system is designed to inadvertently oppress and marginalize innocent immigrant parents who are merely employing the dominant parenting practices of their country of origin.  Quotes from a Child Protective Services social worker and other professionals will demonstrate the lack of a current solution.  A discussion of the laws will demonstrate that Washington law is flexible enough to allow for cultural diversity.  Literature and research will be provided supporting the need for flexible law enforcement and preventative parenting education. 

This proposal details a cost-effective, culturally-sensitive, collaborative, preventative proposal for a community psychology project to alleviate the unnecessary suffering of immigrant families and transform the system into a culturally competent system.  More specifically, this project’s purpose is to protect innocent immigrant parents from being falsely accused and convicted of child abuse due to a simple lack of awareness of local parenting laws.  This proposal advocates for the education of immigrant parents of local parenting laws to prevent immigrant parents from being falsely accused of child abuse.  This proposal also advocates for immigrants to educate the system regarding the diversity of parenting practices.

A True Story

Fifteen years ago, the Meng family lived in Korea (identifying details were altered to protect the family's identity).  One day, the son returned from school and told his mother he was brutally raped by his teacher.  The mother felt horrified and helpless.  She unfairly blamed herself for not protecting her child.  Later that night, the teacher called the mother and threatened to murder her and her family if she told anyone.  Because the police did not have a good reputation regarding such matters, she did not report the rape.  She also did not tell her husband for fear that he would murder the teacher in revenge.  She was deeply afraid for her family, so the mother convinced her husband to move the family to North America.

Over the next fifteen years, the family prospered.  The 5-year-old boy grew up to be a fine young man and went to college.  The parents had a second child, a daughter.  One day, the mother saw her 7-year-old, outgoing daughter hug her male teacher at school.  The mother’s trauma was triggered.  She had no reason to suspect the teacher of harming her daughter, but the mother was hypervigilant about keeping her children away from men.  The mother wanted to give her daughter a strong message that she should not touch her teachers, so the mother did what the 80%[1] of Korean mothers do: she used corporal punishment to correct her child’s behavior, which she used about once every two years.

The next day at school, the outgoing daughter told her teacher about the spanking.  The school staff investigated and found bruises on the daughter’s buttocks.  They called CPS and the police.  CPS social workers and police officers came to the school to investigate.  When the mother arrived at school to pick up her daughter, the police officers and the CPS social workers interrogated her in front of school staff.  The diminutive Korean mother was cornered by the police officers and treated like a criminal.  The police said she broke the law by physically abusing her child, implying that the mother was a bad parent.  She was deeply ashamed and subservient.  She agreed 100% with the police officers and she adamantly vowed to never spank her children again.  Her family was ashamed of her.  She was convinced she was a bad person for having violated the law.  Over time, she became depressed and isolated. 

CPS called me to engage the family in therapy.  When I met the family, the mother told me she was never informed about the child abuse laws in Washington.  She said she never would have spanked her daughter if she knew the law.  She never blamed the system.  She was never angry.  She took complete responsibility even though she was never told about the law.  She just wanted to be a good immigrant citizen.  Due to her self-blame and shame, she became significantly depressed and her parenting suffered as a result.  It took months of therapy for the mother to recover from the shame of being treated like a criminal.  After months of review, CPS and the state prosecutor found the child abuse allegation to be unfounded.


Valerie Von Destinon, a DSHS Social Worker since 1996, answered some questions and gave me written permission to quote her.  She wrote: “I have had so many cases where parents only needed the education and maybe a little support and training and there would never have been a CPS issue. They simply did not understand and were disciplining the way that they were raised” (Personal Communication, July 17, 2012).  She believes some families are falsely prosecuted for criminally assaulting their children when they are merely following the dominant cultural practice in their home country. 

She believes it is unreasonable to expect families to be responsible for laws they do not know, and we need to take the responsibility to educate them if we want to hold them to our standards.  She thinks educating immigrants about parenting laws would eliminate the majority of these cases.  In her experience, families want to learn and adapt to local laws, but they are not given that opportunity. 

She wrote that DSHS is not putting efforts into researching or alleviating this issue, that she is aware of.  She also asserts that meaningful change will not occur unless those in power are held accountable.  She also asserts that if our system is going to move toward being more culturally sensitive and aware, the WACs and RCW’s are going to have to be reviewed and revised.

Asking Other Professionals

I asked immigration professionals in various fields the following questions: Do you know if and when immigrants are educated about local parenting laws? Is there an immigrant advocacy group that educates immigrants about local parenting laws? (Each gave their written consent to include the following quotes.)

Juli Bildhauer, Director at Volunteer Advocates for Immigrant Justice in Seattle, wrote that she thought it would be very helpful to have such programs; however she was not aware of any programs that affirmatively provided outreach and education to parents about local parenting laws or advocacy groups that work in this area (Personal Communication, August 19, 2012).  A representative at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project wrote that they did not put efforts into educating immigrant parents about local parenting laws (Personal Communication, August 21, 2012).  Alma David, immigration lawyer at Rios & Cruz, wrote that although the project sounds worthwhile, she was not aware of any large-scale outreach to immigrant parents by either government agencies or non-government organizations to educate parents about local parenting laws (Personal Communication, August 22, 2012).  There were many others in the immigration field who also agreed that something should be done to prevent innocent immigrant parents from being needlessly dragged through the system and treated like criminals.

Washington Law

The following Washington Administrative Codes were retrieved online on July 30, 2012.  Child abuse or neglect means the injury, sexual abuse, or sexual exploitation of a child by any person under circumstances which indicate that the child's health, welfare, or safety is harmed, or the negligent treatment or maltreatment of a child by a person responsible for or providing care to the child.  Physical abuse means the nonaccidental infliction of physical injury or physical mistreatment on a child.  Physical abuse includes, but is not limited to, such actions as: throwing, kicking, burning, or cutting a child; striking a child with a closed fist; shaking a child under age three; interfering with a child's breathing; threatening a child with a deadly weapon; doing any other act that is likely to cause and which does cause bodily harm greater than transient pain or minor temporary marks or which is injurious to the child's health, welfare or safety.  Physical discipline of a child, including the reasonable use of corporal punishment, is not considered abuse when it is reasonable and moderate and is inflicted by a parent or guardian for the purposes of restraining or correcting the child.  The age, size, and condition of the child, and the location of any inflicted injury shall be considered in determining whether the bodily harm is reasonable or moderate.  Other factors may include the developmental level of the child and the nature of the child's misconduct.

Upon a careful reading of the law, although there is no explicit language regarding cultural diversity, it seems there is enough flexibility for culturally-sensitive interpretation and enforcement.  The law seems sufficient, as long as those within the system were allowed and encouraged to see allegations of child abuse holistically, taking culture into consideration.

Literature Review

According to Rhee, Chang, Weaver, and Wong (2008), little is known about the scope and characteristics of child abuse among immigrant families.  Furthermore, literature and studies on patterns of CPS agencies’ decisions regarding immigrant child abuse victims are nearly nonexistent.  The authors assert that this scarcity of research impedes CPS workers from attaining a culturally competent understanding of child maltreatment among immigrants.  However, there are some studies regarding the topic.

Korean parents.  Regarding the Korean mother’s use of corporal punishment, Chang, Rhee, and Weaver (2006) point out that many Koreans believe in the saying “Sarang-Eei-Mae” or “the whip of love.”  A study conducted by Kim in 1998 (as cited in Chang, Rhee, & Weaver, 2006) shows that as high as 80% of Korean parents reported using physical violence toward their children.

Corporal punishment and high intimacy. There is some evidence that corporal punishment may not be abusive as long as it is accompanied with high intimacy.  For example, Latino American parents tend to exhibit both greater intimacy and more protective behaviors and strictness than White American parents (Zayas & Solari, 1994, as cited in Fontes, 2002).  As another example, Chinese parents lovingly promote child and family well-being in two ways: through physical and emotional closeness which ensures a lifelong bond and establishing child obedience through strict discipline (Ho, 1986).  The author Lisa Fontes (2002) asserts that some immigrant parents are incorrectly accused of physically abusing their children because American mainstream-culture professionals are puzzled by immigrants’ unfamiliar yet harmless parenting practices.

It goes both ways. Mainstream American parents can also be falsely accused of child maltreatment.  For example, American parents often consider it important developmentally for a child to learn how to sleep alone at night.  Parents often facilitate this by forcing the child to sleep alone in their crib in another room and do not respond when the child cries.  The authors of Neglected Children, Research, Practice, Policy (Korbin & Spilsbury, 1999) found that rural Polynesian-American women were incredulous that White-American parents put infants in separate beds, and worse, in separate rooms, alone for the entire night.  They considered this abusive, dangerous and detrimental to social development.  If a Polynesian legal system reacted to child abuse similar to the system in Washington State, mainstream American parents might be imprisoned for putting their children in cribs at night.  This is not to say that Polynesian parenting practices are superior to American practices – rather, it means parenting must be understood culturally and holistically.

Child abuse prevalence. This does not mean that immigrant parents do not physically abuse their children – abuse seems to be a problem in every culture (Rhee, Chang, Weaver, & Wong, 2008).  In 2003, 149,000 children were identified as victims of physical abuse by child protective services (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2005).  Those are merely the reported cases of abuse – it is difficult to estimate the extent of victimization that goes undetected by the authorities (Kim, Lau, & Chang, 2007).  It is also difficult to estimate rates of abuse within immigrant populations since there are, as yet, no reliable estimates (Kim, Lau, & Chang, 2007).  Abuse is a problem worldwide, in every culture, and more efforts should be made to reduce the suffering of these children.  However, the identifying markers of abuse may differ depending on the context, and successful intervention depends on correctly detecting these markers.  For example, a bruise may be a good indicator of physical abuse among mainstream American children whereas a declaration of fear may be a better indicator of abuse in a Latino American family.

Absolutist vs. relativist. There are two main, opposed, theoretical positions regarding how to apply law to immigrant populations (Coleman, 2007).  The first is called “absolutist” in that its adherents hold the absolute view that immigrants ought to adhere to mainstream American norms as ensconced in the law.  This is based on the belief that local laws reflect the best normative choices.  From the absolutist position, immigrants are expected to conform to mainstream American parenting practices with little, if any, guidance on how to do so.  The second theoretical position is called “relativist” because its adherents hold the view that all cultures are equally valid and thus worthy of respect in the law.  This is based on the notion that the U.S. is an intentionally pluralistic society in which individual liberty is valued.  The relativist view provides that child abuse legal practices should not penalize immigrant parents for engaging in their own traditional childrearing practices (Coleman, 2007, p. 294). 

I propose a third theoretical position that I might call the “responsible relativist” view – a viewpoint that allows for cultural diversity and simultaneously questions parenting practices from any culture (mainstream or otherwise) that undermine the well-being of a child.  For example, after careful and inclusive discourse, we might conclude that a particular Korean parent who shows much affection and uses reasonable corporal punishment (common Korean parenting practice) is not abusing the child; however, we might also conclude that a Somali parent who shows much affection for a daughter and performs female circumcision (common Somali parenting practice) is indeed abusing the child.  These judgments need to be made after a careful and inclusive discourse between all those involved, rather than the top-down, absolutist manner in which judgments are currently made.

Conclusion. Clearly, parenting practices differ across cultures.  The interpretation of parenting practices depends upon a holistic, nuanced understanding of each culture’s overall approach to discipline and bonding.  Finding a discipline injury on a child may be a sign of abuse or it may be a sign of a loving, but strict, parenting style.  Currently, our government has designed a mainstream-centric set of legal definitions of child abuse and they are enforced without considering these cultural differences. 

As an ironic and tragic twist, being falsely accused of child abuse might lead to actual abuse since there is an increased risk of abuse when immigrants feel the stress, isolation, and uncertainty of acculturation (Dettlaff, Earner, & Phillips, 2009; Kim, Lau, & Chang, 2007, p. 372).  Therefore, if our goal is to reduce child abuse and increase justice for all, we must do more than reactively respond to allegations based upon mainstream-centric understandings of parenting practices.  This is typical of our crisis-oriented community problem-solving method which often fails to reduce unwanted outcomes.  Because we do not plan ahead, we attempt to solve each individual problem as an emergency (Wolff, 2009).  It is time for a new solution.


This project aims to prevent wrongful prosecution of innocent immigrant parents by collaboratively educating immigrant parents about local parenting laws while simultaneously allowing the immigrants to transform the system into becoming culturally competent.  This proposal is an attempt to prevent unnecessary suffering and the use of state resources in the investigation and prosecution of innocent immigrant parents.  It is designed to protect innocent immigrant parents from being falsely accused and/or convicted of child abuse due to a simple lack of awareness of local parenting laws.  This project is also designed to not merely educate, but to work collaboratively with immigrant communities, to allow for a mutually-benefiting dialogue, in the effort of reducing child abuse and the oppression of marginalized populations.


This project proposes for the hiring of an Immigrant Parent Advocate at DSHS to be accountable for reducing cases in which immigrants are falsely accused of child maltreatment. 

Budget. DSHS will allocate $100,000 in salary, benefits, oversight of the position, and overhead for the Immigrant Parent Advocate position.  This expenditure will save the state government an estimated $1,000,000 in unnecessary use of resources within CPS, police, court, legal services, intervention services, etc.  This number is a back-of-the-napkin estimate – more accurate estimates should be explored. 

As another method of demonstrating tax savings, costs incurred by the true story depicted above could be examined: my therapy service through DSHS ($3,000) + CPS staff time ($1,000) + police officers’ time ($1,000) + state prosecutors’ time ($1,000) vs. $100 to have preventatively educated the parents.  (This case did not go to court – it should be noted that the cost is vastly higher for those cases.)  Therefore, only 10 to 20 false allegation cases would have to be prevented to make up for $100,000 budget.

Duties. The Immigrant Parent Advocate will be responsible for and enthusiastically loyal to following five duties.

Duty #1: Discover Community Leaders and Groups. Problem-solving processes are doomed to fail if they are not connected to the people most affected by the issues (Wolff, 2009).  Those most directly affected should be engaged.

The Immigrant Parent Advocate will creatively, collaboratively, and continuously discover and connect with community groups and leaders within those groups, e.g., neighborhood leaders, churches, and community centers.  Each immigrant cultural group would have to be identified and engaged.  There are hundreds of individual cultural groups in Washington State – each with their own language and cultural practices.

Some of these leaders may be nodes for a few families while other leaders may have contact with thousands in their immigrant community.  These leaders should be altruistic individuals who have access to some portion of the immigrant population.  It is important to have a deep and rich dialogue with people in the community, to get to know them, before actions are taken by this project.

Duty #2: Discover Consultants in the System. When organizations work to enhance each other’s capacity, they open vast possibilities for community change (Wolff, 2009, p. 49)

The Immigrant Parent Advocate will create a network of important consultants such as CPS staff, police staff, lawyers, judges, school staff, Northwest Immigrant Rights, and Refugee Women’s Alliance.  These professionals can assist in the ongoing inquiry and discovery process as well as become recipients of educative information from the immigrants themselves.

Duty #3: Discover Culturally-Competent Education Practices. Without a focused attempt to reorient our thinking, our efforts to help often reflect our prejudices and biases (Wolff, 2009, p. 17). 

Building on the strengths of the communities and utilizing consultants, the Immigrant Parent Advocate will coordinate with community leaders to discover how to educate immigrant parents, using culturally-specific methods, about Washington parenting laws.  By involving immigrants in the decision-making process, the individual communities’ strengths can be utilized. 

Duty #4: Facilitate Education Between the Immigrants and the System. For a project to be transformative and build capacity, it must help the marginalized community deal with the system (Kagan & Burton, 2005). 

The system will educate the immigrants regarding the law, and immigrants will be allowed to educate the system regarding how they parent. 

The Immigrant Parent Advocate will collaboratively implement the discovered cultural-specific methods of educating immigrant parents about local parenting laws.  The Immigrant Parent Advocate will also connect immigrant parents with already established parenting classes and support networks.  These efforts are not intended to merely tell immigrants what do to – the goal is to empower marginalized immigrants with knowledge and resources.

The Immigrant Parent Advocate will also collaboratively facilitate the immigrants in their efforts to train school staff, police, prosecutors, judges, CPS workers, the public, etc.: 1) how to conduct culturally-sensitive investigations that do not alienate or provoke immigrants, 2) how to flexibly interpret the law when investigation and prosecuting immigrant families, and 3) how to direct innocent parents toward education rather than prosecution.  The system needs to be educated at all levels: those who make the reports, those who screen the reports, case-workers to investigate them, their supervisors who evaluate the investigations, the police who investigate the potential crime, the prosecutors who advocate for the victims, and the judges who are ultimately responsible for conviction and sentencing.  These trainings should be conducted by immigrant community members – this will hopefully empower the immigrant community, decrease the likelihood of misunderstanding, and increase goodwill between immigrants and the system.

Duty #5: Gather Feedback, Present Outcomes, and Make Adjustments.  For a project to be community-based, it must give power to the people by establishing transparency and accountability (Wolff, 2009). 

The Immigrant Parent Advocate will collaborate with the communities of interest by formally and informally exchanging information, modifying activities, sharing resources, and enhancing the capacity of each other for mutual benefit (Wolff, 2009).  Following the principles of active citizenship and empowerment, every twelve months, the Immigrant Parent Advocate will gather feedback and data, present outcomes, and change practices accordingly. 

Qualitative feedback will be gathered from all communities of interest such as CPS administration, community leaders, and family court.  Constructive criticism will be elicited from marginalized communities in particular. 

Quantitative data will be gathered such as the number of unfounded CPS investigations of immigrant parents.  Although there are many confounding variables (e.g., fluctuations in immigration to Washington State), the number of unfounded investigations among immigrant populations will be a good measure of program efficacy.  To account for confounding variables, longitudinal comparisons could be drawn between Washington’s and Oregon’s number of unfounded investigations among immigrant parents.  Also, this project could be piloted in one county and a cross-county comparison could be made to evaluate the value of the program.

Small research grants could be attained by appealing to universities committed to social justice, and interested students could be engaged to review the project as their dissertation or some other school project.  More specifically, my employer, Antioch University Seattle, could be involved with help from Rebecca McColl, Grants Officer.

This feedback and data will be documented in an annual report by the Immigrant Parent Advocate and easily accessible on the DSHS website which is currently accessible at  This will engender a sort of democracy in which the community will be able to review and act upon all feedback given to the Immigrant Parent Advocate and the project itself.

What This Project Is Not

This project will not focus on reducing actual child abuse – broadening the foci would muddy the waters and make it too complicated to succeed.  Although, with knowledge of what is permissible, immigrant families may choose to not demonstrate questionable behavior, and therefore actual child abuse may decrease. 

This project will not target non-immigrant parents since this would also muddy the waters and might prevent the project from getting off the ground.  However, if this project is shown to reduce unfounded allegations within the immigrant community, the project could be later broadened to include all marginalized parents (e.g., rural parents who are unaware of Washington parenting laws). 

Furthermore, this project will not attempt to rewrite the laws since the laws are seemingly sufficient and flexible enough.  However, important systems (CPS workers, courts) could be educated by the immigrant community regarding how to effectively utilize the flexibility within the current law.


This project is attempting to be caring and compassionate toward all communities involved while simultaneously reducing costs.  Consistent with truly collaborative efforts, rewards will be shared by all communities of interest:

·         Immigrant families will not be needlessly dragged through painful and damaging legal proceedings which would possibly lower the risk of immigrant families developing unfortunate stress symptoms such as teen gang activity, and the immigrants would see the system as an ally rather than an enemy;

·         The system could more fully actualize their altruistic goals of benefitting the community by spending their efforts on actual cases of abuse, the system will become more culturally competent, and the system would be perceived as preventative and caring rather than reactive and oppressive; and

·         The taxpayers will save money and be given a higher quality service from the system. 


Chang, J., Rhee, S., & Weaver, D. (2006). Characteristics of child abuse in immigrant Korean families and correlates of placement decisions. Child Abuse & Neglect, 30, 881–891

Coleman, D. L. (2007). The role of the law in relationships within immigrant families: Traditional parenting practices in conflict with American concepts of maltreatment. In J. E. Lansford, K. Deater-Deckard, & M. H. Bornstein (Ed.), Immigrant families in contemporary society, pp. 287-303.

Dettlaff, A. J., Earner, I., & Phillips, S. D. (2009). Latino children of immigrants in the child welfare system: Prevalence, characteristics, and risk. Children and Youth Services Review, 31, 775–783.

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Rhee, S., Chang, J., Weaver, D., & Wong, D. (2008). Child maltreatment among immigrant Chinese families: Characteristics and patterns of placement. Child Maltreatment, 13 (3), 269-279.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration of Children, Youth, and Families (2005).  Child maltreatment 2003. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Wolff, T. (2009). The Power of Collaborative Solutions. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Washington Administrative Codes (2012). Retrieved 07/30/12