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Parents take plea to streets Police defend the removal of two families' children as the Asian community protests authorities' investigation of possible child abuse.

By: Erin Grace, Joseph Morton; Omaha World-Herald, May 3, 2002, Friday

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

But the authorities who removed the children on suspicion of child abuse stood by their decisions Friday, saying they were acting in the best interests of the 10 children.

Both mothers of the children will have detention hearings in Douglas County Juvenile Court, where a judge will decide whether it's safe to return the children while the negligence allegations play out.

Officially Friday, the detention hearings have been set for May 8 and May 14. But a juvenile court prosecutor said at midday Friday it was possible that another hearing could be held as early as this afternoon. Such a hearing could lead to the children's release, she said. "All of us are trying to find a solution that is in the best interest of the children," said Kim Hawekotte, a deputy Douglas County attorney in the juvenile division.

The two families and other Hmong accuse school officials and Omaha police of mistaking bruises from an Asian home remedy for child abuse. The remedy, called cao gio or coining, involves rubbing of warm oils or gels across a person's skin with a flat object, leaving red bruises on the skin.

Thanh Tukhac Do, father of six of the children removed and placed in foster care, said during one of the protests that he and his wife had been treating their children for the flu. The couple is worried about their children.

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

OPS spokeswoman Luanne Nelson said Friday the staff at Sherman Elementary School, where the children attended, were following protocol for suspected abuse when they reported it to authorities.

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

Police photos show "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. We have to make the best decision for the children. If it's erring on the side of caution, we do."

City Prosecutor Marty Conboy, who on Friday was awaiting further police reports to reach his office, said that police and prosecutors must educate themselves on the practice of coining before deciding whether to file criminal charges against the parents.

"Given the grief and emotional nature of it for the families involved, we will try and do that as quickly as we can," Conboy said.

James Martin Davis, who is representing parents Seng Chang and Kaying Lor in this dispute, said the judicial process for resolving such disputes takes too long, leaving parents and children apart.

He said if his client's children aren't returned within a week or two, he will give the children a psychological evaluation and pursue the state for damages.

Hawekotte said the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services is assessing the kids to recommend whether they should be put back in their homes.

The department was to give her information about the assessment today, which made a decision possible yet today. Then it was possible a juvenile court judge would have the kids released, she said.

This morning, protesters gathered first around 7:30 a.m. outside Sherman Elementary, 14th Street and Ellison Avenue, where school officials first raised suspicions. 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 the glass window, watched.

What they saw was a peaceful group of adults, children and college students, standing 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 got to talk with OPS officials an hour later at the district's headquarters. Most of their group lined Cuming Street, chanting at cars that honked in support.

Retired Omaha police officer and OPS head of security, William Nared, steered the group to the most visible spots along Cuming Street. A police cruiser blocked a lane of traffic in an effort to keep children safe from whizzing cars.

One Asian youth sang "We Shall Overcome."

"We're not Martin Luther King," another demonstrator told the singer.

"We're going to make this a civil rights issue," he said.

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."

Lo then asked why Lincoln schools called parents first.

Nelson said there was probably better cultural understanding.

"This may be the catalyst," she said. "I think what occurs, after you experience an incident that makes people more aware, is (better understanding)."

At a press conference Thursday, Lo pulled out a small jar. Outside, the label read Tiger Balm; inside was a pungent orange paste.

"Our nurse is Tiger Balm, our doctor is Tiger Balm, everything is Tiger Balm," said Lo, who said he produced his own jar to show how commonly it is used among people of Asian descent.

GRAPHIC: Color Photo/1 Seng Chang, mother of four children removed from her home, is comforted Friday by niece Manee Lor during a protest outside Sherman Elementary School, where Chang's children first were suspected of being abused. Chang and other members of the Lao-Hmong community believe authorities have mistaken an Asian remedy for child abuse.; PHIL JOHNSON/THE WORLD-HERALD/1sf