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Children back with parents

By: By Joseph Morton, Erin Grace; Omaha World-Herald; May 4, 2002, Saturday

Ten children from two Lao-Hmong families were reunited with their parents late Friday afternoon. They had spent four days in foster care over child-abuse accusations stemming from use of an Asian home medical remedy.

Nicole Brundo Goaley, deputy Douglas County attorney, said her office determined that the marks on the children were from "coining" and nothing else.

"We're satisfied there's not a safety issue to the children being with their parents," Goaley said. The children were sent home from foster care on two conditions: that the families not use coining on the children and that their homes be accessible to Nebraska Health and Human Services caseworkers or a guardian ad litem for announced or unannounced visits.

The children will remain under the legal custody of Health and Human Services until detention hearings are held in Douglas County Juvenile Court. One hearing is scheduled for Thursday, the other for May 14.

The cases were resolved after a county attorney consulted with Health and Human Services caseworkers, medical experts and guardians ad litem. Juvenile Court judges then signed the orders.

The two families and other Hmong families have said since Tuesday that school officials and Omaha police mistook bruises from an Asian home remedy for child abuse. The remedy, called cao gio or coining, involves rubbing warm oils or gels across a person's skin with a flat object, which leaves red bruises on the skin.

Thanh Tukhac Do, father of six of the children involved, said during a protest Friday morning that he and his wife had been treating their children for the flu.

"They should be able to tell the difference between abuse and caring," he said through a translator.

Omaha Public Schools spokeswoman Luanne Nelson said Friday that the staff at the children's school, Sherman Elementary, followed protocol for suspected abuse when they reported it to authorities.

Police didn't dispute the cause of the bruises but said officers followed the same standards they would for any child who had bruises caused by a parent.

Police photos showed "extensive bruises" on the children, Lt. Doug Chonis said Friday. Chonis heads the child-victim unit.

Officer Cathy Martinec, a department spokeswoman, said: "We stand by our decision" to remove the children from their homes. "We have to make the best decision for the children. If it's erring on the side of caution, we do."

James Martin Davis, who is representing both families in the dispute, said the judicial process for resolving such disputes takes too long, leaving parents and children apart.

Friday morning, about 50 members of Omaha's Lao-Hmong community demonstrated at three locations, chanting "We want justice," and waving signs and photographs of children taken from two families.

They gathered first around 7:30 a.m. outside Sherman Elementary, 14th Street and Ellison Avenue. They later protested at the school district headquarters and then at the seat of local government, the City-County Building.

"This is crazy," said 24-year-old David Vang, the son of Hmong immigrants who missed a day of medical school in Des Moines to support demonstrators. "It's not right. They have to differentiate between child abuse and Asian medicine."

The protesters included the children's parents, Hmong, Laotian and Vietnamese families and a handful of non-Asian supporters.

At Sherman, police officers, OPS administrators and, later, some Sherman elementary students, their faces pressed up to the glass window, watched.

Outside, a peaceful group of adults, children and college students stood in the middle of 14th Street, waving signs that read "Sherman Elementary Wrong," "Hmong Loves America" and "Communist State No."

"We want our children back!" shouted Laura Xiong, director of the local Hmong International Human Rights Watch and a Sitel Corp. employee. "Talk to us, please!"

Xiong, former City Councilman Lormong Lo and two others spoke with OPS officials an hour later at the district's headquarters. Most of their group lined up outside along Cuming Street.

Inside, Lo asked Nelson and Assistant Superintendent John Smith for better communication, more understanding of cultural practices such as the rubbing of Vicks or Tiger Balm into children's skin to heal fevers. Lo also asked them to look into a beating last year of a Benson High student who is the son of a local Hmong leader.

Nelson said she would look into the Benson situation and contact Lo. She also defended Sherman Elementary staff who, she said, were following state law requiring adults to report suspected child abuse.

Lo asked why parents were not contacted first.

"Not in the case of suspected child abuse," Nelson said. "Once we've reported it, we're out of the mix."