EVERETT – A teenage girl’s parents won’t buy her a $400 leather jacket, so she accuses them of abuse and is removed from the home.
A young boy refuses to tell his grandmother how to use a cake mix because he’s afraid the eggs will add to her high cholesterol.
In both cases, the adults don’t speak English. And in both cases, bilingual children take advantage of them to get what they want or control the situation.
“Sometimes the children run the household,” said Van Dinh-Kuno, a Vietnamese immigrant who now runs the Snohomish County Refugee and Immigrant Forum.
The stories are not only true, she said, they’re also very common.
“In general, the children are pretty good because they obey their parents. But we’ve got a certain percentage that behave (poorly),” she said.
A 30-year-old woman was arrested this week on sex charges after she was caught living with an Everett family who believed she was the 17-year-old boyfriend of their daughter.
The daughter, 14, speaks English. The parents do not.
Experts say that even if this isn’t a case of a child intimidating or duping non-English-speaking parents into a dangerous situation, it’s a warning of a role reversal that often occurs in refugee and immigrant families.
Children often learn English more quickly than their parents because they attend school while the parents work long hours in jobs that may not require English-language skills.
“When they come here, they see that they are not the authority figure in the family anymore because of limited English proficiency,” said Someireh Amirfaiz, executive director of the Refugee Women’s Alliance in Seattle.
“The language becomes power,” she said.
Some parents become depressed and feel isolated – creating more power for the children, said Bill France, a victim advocate supervisor for the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office.
France is also the acting program coordinator for Dawson Place, a child advocacy center.
Once children realize they can pull the wool over their parents’ eyes, the temptation can often be too much to resist.
A concerned note from a teacher becomes high praise when the student doesn’t want to bother with homework.
An eviction notice is translated as a neighborly letter when a child is afraid of telling his parents about problems with the landlord.
In the worst cases, children threaten to report their parents to Child Protection Services when they don’t get what they want, Amirfaiz said.
Some families have escaped countries where any government involvement usually ends in tragedy, Dinh-Kuno said.
“How scared they are!” she said. “They don’t understand CPS; they only know it’s an agency that takes children away.”
Parents who don’t speak English and who don’t know where to find help are virtually handcuffed to relying on their children.
Once it reaches the criminal justice system, they often encounter more problems, France said.
While the courts are required to provide interpreters to defendants, victims are not afforded the same rights.
Prosecutors and victims advocates strive to provide interpreters to victims and their families, but the process is often expensive and cumbersome, France said.
“I think we’re nowhere near up to speed at any level,” he said.
It is inappropriate for a child to be expected to interpret for their parents about legal issues, especially if the child is the victim, France said.
The child’s interests and needs may differ from the family’s or the child may not be able to comprehend the complexity of the issues, he said.
Whether in court or in daily life, that responsibility steals a child’s innocence – a fundamental piece of development, Amirfaiz said.
It will continue to cause intergenerational conflicts unless that family is connected with the support and services they need.
“It’s hard enough to know what your child is doing and get them to talk to you if everyone speaks English,” France said.