Moving Forward: Hmong and criminal justice leaders work on education

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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) -- Nearly one year ago a shooting took four lives too soon and changed the Wausau Metro Area forever. Each of those who died acted bravely as they stood up to protect others. Moving forward, 7 Investigates looked at some of the factors that contributed to the incident and how education can prevent it from happening again.

First and foremost, as seen in other mass shootings, if someone wants to commit the unthinkable, it can be hard to change his or her mind. The other factors in the March 22nd shootings include domestic violence and divorce. These are difficult problems of all cultures, but there are unique barriers for Hmong Americans who are essentially living in two different worlds at once, with two different ways of handling these issues. However, to talk about those problems, we must first understand the Hmong marriage process.

In 2010, NewsChannel 7 anchor Bao Vang allowed viewers to follow her and her fiancé as they went through the traditional Hmong wedding ceremonies, which are quite different from most non-Hmong weddings.

"In this 1,600 square foot rambler,” Vang explained in her series, “my family is prepared to jam 50 to 60 people. There is no church, no reception hall, the entire negotiation process and feast will take place at my mother's house."

The negotiation she talked about is the dowry, the price the groom’s family pays the bride’s family in appreciation for raising a loving, caring, educated woman. This tradition is important because once the negotiation process is complete, the two are married and the woman leaves her family for good.

In the past, since the Hmong people did not belong to a specific country and were nomadic, the woman may never see her family again. That is not often the case today in America, but it adds to the emotion and significance of the marriage.

"Once the wife is married to the husband, she becomes a member of their family, a member of their clan. Now, according to the Hmong culture, their spirits, their ancestors are now protecting her," Wausau’s Hmong American Center Executive Director Yee Leng Xiong said.

He explained the husband’s family and clan are now responsible for the care of the woman’s mind, body, and spirit. These ancestors and spirits guide all clan members throughout life and through death. A separate wedding celebration and set of rituals further establishes this spiritual transformation.

The theme throughout the process is that of love, respect, and family.

"They must love their parents, they must love each other, they can't abuse each other,” Xiong said the couple are told. “They have to treat each other with respect and this all happens at the wedding."

As the Hmong and American cultures assimilate, Xiong said many Hmong marriages incorporate typical American wedding traditions or other religious traditions.

Like in any culture, sometime the marriage does not work and the couple wants to divorce. Because of the spiritual component of Hmong marriages, the clan the couple belongs to, which act as supports and mediators for their members, speak with them before any actions are taken.

"The most important ritual is the wedding and also the funeral and everything loops together,” Xiong said. “And they make sure that if you're going to divorce, it will be a clean divorce. It can't just be, 'oh we'll see, we'll talk about it later.' They need to talk about it, they need to make sure it's clear and complete."

This process can be long if the clan does not see clear faults, like cheating in the marriage, and may deny the request and encourage the couple to work on the marriage. Women’s Community Southeast Asian Coordinator Mao Khang, however, said this verbal process can be quick if it is clear who is at fault, especially if the couple goes through her and it involves domestic or sexual abuse.

"In the Hmong, when there's a divorce, you know they get it done right away,” Khang explained. “If they can settle, they get it done right there and then that day. But through the legal system, there's so much that you have to go through, you know there's the kids, there's property, all of these things and they both have to agree. If they don't agree, then it's going to take longer."

That is where one barrier comes in; Hmong Americans must go through many processes like marriage and divorce twice, once through the Hmong clan and again through the American legal system. Many Hmong Americans do not understand or have not been taught the basics of the American legal system, however.

That includes the man responsible for the March 22nd shootings who, after roughly two years of legal divorce proceedings, stormed into Marathon Savings Bank in Rothschild asking for his wife to immediately go sign divorce papers, when the next available court date was not until the summer. According to investigators’ interviews with his wife, he could not understand things like why he had to have his possessions assessed, thinking his wife was trying to take them away from him.

"When that case happened last year,” Khang began, “they did come to me and say 'why does she ask so much child support? Why does she want this? Why does she want that?' I was like, 'It's just the state, the law. Everything is divided equally and they both have to agree and the reason why it's taking so long is they don't agree.'"

Khang explained, in the Hmong culture, the clan gets to decide the terms about things like children and property.

"If he says no, I don't want that, they have the clan system to control him or to tell her that, 'hey, this is going to be safe, this is going to be equal for you guys,' and he can't say no," she said.

In a divorce, the woman has to also go through an extra step if she no longer wants to remain part of her husband’s clan family. She has to ask permission from the clan to have her mind, body, and spirit transferred back to her birth family’s clan so she will be taken care of. This request is routed through the clan at the local, state, national, and international level, which Khang explains is a long process, and it is not always granted.

This spiritual piece that is at the core of the Hmong culture is what makes it uniquely difficult for Hmong women to leave abusive marriages.

"If you don't get a Hmong divorce and something happens to you or your kids, then no one is going to take care of you. No one is going to be burying you,” said Khang. “So, I think that's the most fear that these women are having."

If a woman skips the Hmong divorce proceedings and only chooses to divorce through the American legal system, she is technically still part of her husband’s family and clan. So, her birth clan may not take responsibility for her, her children, or her funeral, which is immensely expensive and an extremely important spiritual process.

"Her parents are going to say, 'well, all we know is we gave it to you, you married her.' And then his clan is going to say, 'well, she cheated, she's this and that.' So, that's why it's so hard for them to get out," urged Khang.

Hmong men do not change clans, so this issue is unique to women and Khang said it can leave the woman feeling isolated from her entire support system as many divorced women are essentially disowned from the clan.

That is why Khang acts as a mediator for Hmong women, managing the legal system and the clan leaders.

"I always say, I want to do a Hmong divorce,” she said. “I wanted to get that done so she will be accepted back into her family, in her community, then she can be free."

Ultimately she helps the woman with whatever process she wants to go through, including if she chooses to stay in the marriage.

For the family at the center of the March 22nd shootings, the Vang clan granted a divorce and the couple was in the process of divorcing through the American legal system as well. That legal process began in 2015 and was scheduled to be completed in June of 2017. However, investigators found the shooter had married at least one other woman in Laos and planned to be with her in April. That, and the fact that American divorce is a long arduous process, is why he wanted a divorce immediately.

The cheating created friction in their marriage, and since the shooter did not understand the timing of the American legal system, there was even more frustration. That is why Khang not only educates couples and clan leaders on divorce law, but also what is legally considered domestic violence.

"The Hmong people, you know, they see domestic violence as it has to be physical and if it's not physical then ‘it's okay, it's very little problem,’ and ‘just go back,’” Khang explained. “But when it is physical, then there will be consequences that the Hmong people will give."

"I think a lot of times the victims we see, often times a female as a victim, that a crime occurred and they don't even realize that they're a victim of a crime," explained Everest Metro Police Chief Clay Schulz.

People being unaware they have been victimized is not a Hmong-only issue, but Schulz said his and other agencies’ officers do see a gap in education about what constitutes domestic violence.

"There's the threat of violence, verbal abuse, some of those things, even if it doesn't arise to a criminal, I think they feel trapped and they're still a victim," he explained.

Marathon County District Attorney Theresa Wetzsteon, who has seen too many domestic violence cases to count, urges it is not the Hmong culture condoning the crimes.

"I see everyday victims who have endured abuse for years and have never reported and their family members have seen the bruises. Their family members are aware of the power and control, financial, verbal abuse and they have in their own subtle ways or direct ways discouraged the victim from reporting, keeping it silent, keeping it quiet,” she said. “The difference with the Hmong people that I have worked with is that there is a spiritual component that is affected by reporting, by separating from that marriage that needs to be considered and is very important to the Hmong woman who is trying to leave."

Keeping families together is a high priority for the clans, but Khang is trying to educate couples and leaders that sometimes staying together is not the safest thing for the couple or their children.

"What I'm trying to do is educate the clan leaders, educate everybody so that they understand how critical domestic violence or sexual assault is and being there to help before it's too late," she said.

The issue of domestic violence in the Hmong community is an issue Hmong and criminal justice leaders have been trying to tackle since the Hmong people migrated to central Wisconsin nearly 42 years ago. Since the shooting last year, those leaders told 7 Investigates that those efforts are moving forward faster than ever. The group working to combat this issue is part of Wausau Metro Strong.

"We have to try to come together and understand what the issues are and educate ourselves on what, from a law enforcement perspective, what is the culture that exists in the Hmong culture? What are the beliefs? What are the values? And how do they work through those domestic violence issues and divorce issues? That's important for us to understand," Wausau Police Chief Ben Bliven said.

"Sometimes we don't get cooperation from victims where they said, ‘everything is okay, we don't want the police involved,’ and we have mandatory arrest procedures and sometimes those barriers are difficult for us to overcome because we have a law we have to follow," Schulz explained.

"We're trying to get educated on those unique issues,” said Wetzsteon, “but it is not a problem that is unique to the Hmong culture."

Previous Hmong and criminal justice leaders’ group efforts helped to begin the conversations to address domestic violence, but the change and understand came slowly. There were several cases of murder-suicide in the Hmong community about 10 years ago that pushed both the Hmong and law enforcement leaders to act. The late General Vang Pao helped to lead that change.

"There was a, an awareness campaign after the Village of Weston had some Hmong-related homicides in 2006 and 2007, Everest Respect Men and that kind of just brought it to the table again, saying listen, this is not accepted in our community," recalled Schulz.

"We had the general come in and set up this core team to do protocols, how to respond to Hmong domestic violence, sexual assault, and murder-suicide with the kids," said Khang.

"I think that got lost over time after General Vang Pao had passed away and we're looking for someone to stand up again and give the direction that we all support," Schulz continued.

About a decade ago, a DVD was also created to educate people of all communities about domestic violence and the resources available, but the group told 7 Investigates not everyone who needs to see it, has.

In 2011, a Hmong Resolution booklet that has all of the Hmong culture laws was signed off by the leaders of the 18 clans to help Hmong people. It has not been released yet due to lack of funding. One of Wausau Metro Strong’s goals is to also get it fully translated and funded so non-Hmong people and Hmong Americans who do not understand the Hmong language can learn too. Wetzsteon said that task is a more difficult than expected.

"It does contain information about domestic violence, sexual assaults, cultural marriage, cultural divorce, very important information and I think that it's our group's effort that we learn what's in that booklet and figure out a method to best educate," she said.

"Once we get a grasp on that,” Bliven said, “we can work to train our staff and our officers and the legal system as a whole in terms of those issues and set policies so that we're guided towards a path of safety for everybody."

NewsChannel 7 will continue to provide updates on the group’s progress. Wausau Metro Strong also helped push Sara’s Law through the state legislature to help protect family lawyers and will soon unveil a community alert system to educate and inform citizens about potential dangers.