Fostering Cultural Competence in Justice System "Gatekeepers"

Article excerpt

In spring 2002, teachers at an elementary school in Omaha, Nebraska, noticed bruises on a number of stu- dents. Suspecting child abuse, the teachers reported the bruises to local police, as required by state law. Authorities responded by removing ten children from two families and placing them in foster care. Four days later, after protests in the streets and medical examinations of the children, the chil- dren were allowed to return home, although they remained in the legal custody of the state Department of Health and Human Services. Officials ultimately deter- mined mat me children had not been abused, and all legal proceedings against the parents were dropped.1

The uproar arose because the children's parents were Vietnamese and Hmong immigrants who had treated their children using a practice known as cao gio, or "coining." A traditional Asian folk remedy for ailments such as colds, headaches, and fever, cao gio involves rubbing warm oil or gel across a person's skin with an object like the serrated edge of a coin or the edge of a spoon, often leaving red marks or bruises. In the Omaha incident, neither the teachers at the school nor the police who removed the children from their families were familiar with the ancient folk remedy. As the distraught parents struggled to explain the practice of coining and to regain custody of their chil- dren, the local Southeast Asian community rallied, con- demning the removal of the children from their homes as well as law enforcement's lack of cultural sensitivity. The police, in turn, sought to defend their actions, insisting that they were required to follow the same procedures for any bruises on any child that were caused by a parent.*

As the United States becomes increasingly diverse and as the immigrant pop- ulation continues to grow, cultural misunderstandings like the Omaha incident are occurring with greater fre- quency, presenting unique challenges for the country's justice system. The result is a growing emphasis on the importance of cross-cultural competence on the part of all who serve as "gatekeepers" for the justice system, including educators, law enforcement officers, social workers, and health care personnel. Once people enter the justice system, it can be very difficult for them to extricate themselves, particularly if they speak little or no English, have no knowledge of the U.S. legal system, and come from a country with customs, traditions, and mores very different from those in this country.

When gatekeepers have an understanding of other cultures, they can make better-informed decisions about how to exercise their discretion - whether a situation may be best resolved through individual education and counseling, for example - and may conserve resources and produce a better, more just outcome for the immigrant and the immigrant's family, the immigrant community, the justice system, and society as a whole. When "gatekeepers" are culturally-conscious, some cross-cultural cases are screened out even before they enter the justice system; and those cross-cultural cases that do enter the system can be handled more sensitively and effectively because the cultural issues have been identified early in the process.

Establishing standards

To underscore the importance of cross-cultural competence, more and more institutions and professional organizations are establishing applicable standards in their respective fields. In health care, for example, the federal Office of Minority Health issued National Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services in Health Care in 2000, to promote the delivery of health care consistent with patients' cultural beliefs, practices, and languages. Similarly, in 2001, the National Association of Social Workers adopted Standards for Cultural Competence in Social Work Practice. In 2007, the International Association of Chiefs of Police called for new training curricula for all levels of law enforcement, to improve the policing of diverse communities in the 21st century. …