THE AMERICAN DREAM

by Piyali Basak

In pursuit of that intangible American Dream, Rashid Khan moved his family from Bangladesh to New York with the promise of a better life for his children. Now embroiled in a bitter family court battle with the Administration for Children's Services (ACS), New York's child protective agency, the American Dream seems to have lost its luster. He is a disillusioned man, only too willing to return to the safety net of his native country.

Based on a report filed by Khan's daughter, the ACS alleges that he had subjected his child to abuse and neglect. Since then, she has recanted her statement claiming that the allegations were not true. This fact is of little consequence to ACS. Despite the statements, ACS refuses to allow Khan in the home.

There have been many such cases of abuse and neglect filed against parents recorded by the ACS. Many of them are recent immigrants from Bangladesh, India and South East Asia who are caught in a cross-cultural conflict between themselves and their teenage children, who want to go on dates and abandon standard cultural practices as maintained in their native countries. Meanwhile, parents struggle to support their children on a minimal income, as in the case of Khan, who provides for a family of five on less than $2,000 a month. A family from the suburbs of New York need not worry ACS only targets the poor. Cases are rarely filed against doctors and lawyers in the suburbs of NY.

Such impoverished families strive hard to provide their children with an education to ensure they can own a home in the suburbs, rather than continue to live in the abject conditions of the projects. Physical punishment is an age-old practice among them to correct behavioral patterns in the young. It is seldom, if ever, an expression of self-gratification. Take Sudha for example, who whipped her son after he stole money from her and skipped school. ACS charged her with neglect and forced her to take a parenting class, despite the fact that she is the sole breadwinner and keeps long hours at work. Her child, on the other hand, continues with his spate of misdemeanors. These low-income South Asian families are compelled to compete with gangs, drugs and violence. Many of them adopt this lifestyle in order to assimilate. Others, who choose not to adopt this lifestyle, simply want to wear jeans and shed traditional clothing.

The family court rarely probes into these conflicting cultural norms. Instead, judges usually order temporary orders of protections, forbidding clients from using any form of corporal punishment. Parents are increasingly fearful of disciplining their children. ACS also demands that parents complete services to conform to acceptable standards of behavior. Aleya, who is otherwise a mild-mannered, doting mother, had once slapped her daughter because of improper conduct. As a result, she was forced to undergo a parenting and anger management class. A point to be noted is that the classes offered are not in Bengali or in other Indian dialects, making them an added burden on the families.

The lesson learned after such traumatic experiences in family court is to give your children a free rein and allow them to do as they please. Or else you have to reckon with the long and unrelenting arm of law.