A unanimous jury found Korean immigrant detainee and domestic violence survivor Nan-Hui Jo guilty Tuesday of child abduction charges filed by her child’s father and alleged abuser, Jesse Charlton. Now, Nan-Hui is also facing deportation and permanent separation from her child immediately after the hearing.
Nan-Hui Jo fled the U.S. to South Korea in 2009 with her then one-year-old daughter Vitz Da (known as Hwi) to escape abuse by Vitz Da’s American father Charlton, an unstable Iraq war veteran diagnosed with PTSD. For years, Nan-Hui raised her daughter in Korea during which time Charlton, unbeknownst to Nan-Hui, filed child abduction charges against her. When Nan-Hui traveled to Hawaii last summer to consider schools for the American-born Hwi and perhaps re-connect her daughter with Charlton if it was safe, she was immediately arrested and sent to jail.
Hwi was sent to live with her estranged father and a family court judge issued a no-contact order between mother and child. Nan-Hui and Hwi have not seen each other in over 7 months. Nan-Hui’s first trial December 2014 resulted in a hung jury. But District Attorney Jeff Reisig pushed a retrial, refusing to acknowledge the real danger to Nan-Hui and Hwi despite Charlton testifying to extensive abuse. There is also an immigration hold on Nan-Hui Jo so that regardless of the verdict, immediate deportation proceedings could take effect after the retrial, which would separate Nan-Hui from her daughter permanently. No matter where she turns now, Nan-Hui is trapped.
The case highlights how instead of being granted protection and given support, survivors of domestic violence (who are disproportionately women and children) are often criminalized or ignored while their abusers enjoy immunity. Nan-Hui called the police twice in 2009 after Charlton physically abused her, but the police did not take a report either time. Throughout last week’s retrial, sources in the courtroom reported the prosecution painted Charlton a war hero and victim while doubt was continually cast on Nan-Hui’s assertions of Charlton’s violence coupled with the insinuation that she was in fact the aggressor. Nan-Hui was asked questions including, “Isn’t it true that you were the aggressor in your fights?” and “You put your interests before the interest of your baby and her father, didn’t you?”
Situations such as Nan-Hui’s are common but general public awareness and acknowledgment of this fact are sorely lacking, according to Isabel Kang, an advocate with the Korean American Coalition to End Domestic Abuse (KACEDA) which has been leading the campaign to raise awareness about Nan-Hi Jo’s plight. Kang has been a member of KACEDA since 2000 but has been working in the field of violence against women since the 1980s. She pointed out for example that when the media covers a tragic death by domestic violence, the domestic violence piece is often omitted. “I wish this issue of violence against women – that the public was aware in the sense of both identifying but also how widespread and affects every layer of our society,” she said, “Almost everyone knows someone who’s been affected by domestic violence.”
At least one in every three women globally has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused, usually by someone she knows intimately. But Nan-Hui’s case shows the especial and extreme vulnerability of women survivors navigating what many consider a broken U.S. immigration system. Immigrant women are at very high risk for domestic violence. A turn-of-the-century study in New York City found that 51 percent of intimate partner homicide victims were foreign-born. According to a 2000 survey by The National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 60 percent of immigrant Korean women had been battered by their husbands. However, in the United States, the national debate over immigration change has paid little attention to those living in a “double shadow,” suffering from compounded marginalization as immigrants and women. According to a 2010 special report issued by the Immigration Policy Center, nearly half of the foreign-born population in the United States is female, “yet immigrant women’s experiences remain on the periphery of the debate, and the unique experiences and compromises faced by immigrant women are often forgotten.” In 2013, the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) stalled in the House and was almost derailed because Republicans wanted to strip new provisions designed to protect LGBT, Native American and undocumented immigrants who suffered domestic abuse.
All battered women face complex legal and personal obstacles to escaping violence, but for immigrant women these obstacles are particularly amplified. Immigrant women often lack information about the United States legal system and services available to domestic violence victims because of unfamiliarity with a foreign nation and limited English language proficiency. Such cultural isolation is compounded by fears of being deported and losing access to their children or to a partner with more stable immigration or citizen status. Worse, an immigrant woman’s context and legal status not only creates barriers to them seeking and receiving help but is also used by their batterers to additionally control and abuse.
Immigrant women survivors are further distinctly harmed by heightened enforcement of immigration laws. When domestic violence victims are detained, access to services and legal relief that reduce distress are removed. Immigrant mothers are separated from their children and often lose custody. Immigration detention then ends up intensifying trauma and exacerbating the mental health needs of survivors. An important growing body of research shows the negative impacts of domestic violence upon a victim’s life are devastatingly long-term. Survivors are at higher risk for some of the nation’s greatest physical and mental health challenges, including heart disease, chronic pain, asthma, arthritis, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. It is estimated the United States spends $4.1 billion each year on medical costs stemming from domestic abuse.
Saira Hussain, criminal justice reform attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, explains a hung jury in Nan-Hui Jo’s first trial showed there was not enough evidence to convict her of abduction. Nan-Hui Jo could have been released after her first trial and the issue of Hwi’s custody could have been resolved in family court. “Why waste taxpayer money and resources to retry again?” asked Hussain, adding, “To retry her again is aggressive prosecution…She has already been harmed through personal violence which is now being amplified by state-sponsored violence.”
But one of the most lasting consequences of domestic violence that perhaps gets discussed least of all is the harm that it does to family bonds. UNICEF emphasizes policies and practices should especially take into account children such as Hwi who often become “the forgotten victims of violence in the home”. Growing up in a violent home negatively impacts the health of children from the womb. Children in the earliest years of life are particularly vulnerable — research shows that domestic violence is more prevalent in homes with younger children than those with older children. Kids exposed to domestic violence develop chronic health issues very similar to those in adult survivors such as withdrawal, anxiety, sleep disorders, and mental health and behavioral health issues. It has already been relayed that Hwi misses her mother out loud and has had panic attacks since separation.
Courts and government bodies, directs UNICEF, must have specialized policies to address custody, visitation rights, and the safety of adult victims of domestic violence and their children. Indeed, experts increasingly recommend domestic violence interventions be partnered with parenting programs that can give families the support they need to rebuild. In the same vein, the immigration detention system should be reformed to promote family reunification and not re-victimize vulnerable immigrant women detainees and their children. Instead, too often immigrant women survivors like Nan-Hui Jo lose custody of their children and children like Hwi end up in the care of the abuser. An estimated 30 to 50 percent of men who commit violence against their female partners are also violent toward their kids.
“I’ve been doing this too long. I’ve seen too many bad things; too many families broken,” Kang reflected. “We have nothing to gain from condemning this family. Will they ever recover?”
Sharon H. Chang is an author, scholar, sociologist and activist. She writes primarily on racism and social justice with a feminist lens. Her pieces have been featured in Racism Review, Hyphen Magazine, ParentMap Magazine, AAPI Voices and on her own blog, Multiracial Asian Families.