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Child Abuse in the Arab Chicagoland Community

By: Suhad Tabahi, PhD, and Itedal Shalabi, MSW, Arab American Family Services

Any form of violence against children is a worldwide social problem and one that continues to negatively impact families from every culture. Child abuse in the Arab American community has not received the attention warranted to restore healthier childrearing practices and promote stronger families. While the U.S. census classifies persons of Arab ancestry as White/Caucasian, there is a considerable difference between the collectivist values often found in Arab and Arab American culture and the individualist values which characterizes Western culture.

Because child abuse takes many forms such as physical, emotional, psychological, sexual, and/ or neglect, many do not realize that common cultural practices or phrases may be considered some form of abuse in the U.S. Further, the central role of family in Arab culture, particularly in maintaining familial harmony and preserving familial honor, plays a part in discouraging discussion of any form of child abuse and treats it as private family matter to be resolved internally. While no religion, culture or geographic region is immune from experiencing child abuse, the prevalence, prevention and intervention varies depending on services provided and community awareness and education around the issue.

Arab American Family Services (AAFS), a non- profit that provides accessible and effective social services to communities in the Chicagoland area is committed to empowering and enhancing the well- being of Arab Americans and their families through a variety of services such as violence prevention and awareness. As one of the only culturally sensitive social service providers contracted with DCFS, AAFS has taken the charge to not only work with mainstream systems to address child abuse, but also work with the local community in education around cultural practices, policies, laws to help families understand how to maintain healthy cultural practices while keeping children and families safe. There are however, challenges experienced in addressing child abuse in the Arab community such as: (1) A difference in how abuse and neglect are defined and understood in Arab and Western cultures, (2) Social equity factors and representation of Arabs, (3) Parental fears and concerns such as language barriers, fear of DCFS, lack of understanding of parental expectations, (4) Lack of or misrepresentation in the courts and legal systems, (5) Limited opportunities for culturally appropriate, trauma informed and linguistically available parenting classes, and, (6) DCFS workers and Guardians ad litem ill equipped and trained in working with Arab and Muslims families.

The consequences of these challenges have been determinantal to hundreds of families involved in the system such as, children being placed in non- Arab and non- Muslim homes, families in jeopardy of legal and immigration hearings along with the emotional and psychological distress caused by these interruptions in the home and family system. As Arab families continue to operate under collectivistic lifestyles, an incident of potential abuse in one home ultimately not only negatively affects that family, but also impacts relatives and the community at large.

While preliminary CDC data do not suggest that hospital visits have increased during the pandemic, our work within the community suggest that challenges have been compounded during the pandemic because of the economic recession, social stressors associated with parents navigating distance learning and work, and the limited social services available due to public health concerns. In the past few years, AAFS has seen an increase in the number of children and families involved in the system and unfortunately their experiences are often met with numerous barriers. Limited support and trauma informed services are a major cause of exit out of DCFS. The majority of the cases we experience involve parents who are willing to do whatever it takes to reunite their children and work with systems to maintain a stable and healthy household. AAFS provides resources needed for families and communities to address child abuse. Help-seeking and mental health service delivery may also be subject to a number of specific barriers for this population. Since 9/11, Arab immigrants and Arab-Americans have faced considerable challenges in receiving appropriate medical and mental health care, including discrimination and language barriers.

In an effort to address this issue, we offer five central recommendations targeting both the Arab community and mainstream institutions:

  1. Consult with culturally sensitive social service agencies or providers on how to best meet and address the issue of child abuse in the Arab community. Culturally and religiously appropriate trainings to mainstream providers could help decrease the stigma around the issue. Outside intervention may be met with hesitancy and fear therefore, having a trusted community ally will help mediate the process of accessing and receiving services.
  2. Provide parenting and U.S. child welfare policy classes for community members. Oftentimes parents are unaware that cultural and child rearing practices are cause for concern and, in many instances considered illegal in the U.S. Educating parents on U.S. policies regarding child welfare as well empowering parents to know their rights should there be miscommunication in police or DCFS encounters will help minimize a families’ interaction with mainstream legal systems.
  3. Collaborate with school systems and provide opportunities for open dialogue between the school and the community. Oftentimes language barriers and lack of communication between ethnic and immigrant communities cause mistrust and a misunderstanding of the role of the educational system in keeping children safe.
  4. Continue to address this issue in community events and religious services. The Arab community is receptive to hearing from community leaders on pressing social issues.
  5. Provide accessible Arabic speaking translators and services in the courts. Language barriers continue to prove to be one of the greatest challenges in families working to address the issue of child abuse once involved in the system.

While this is a topic that is often considered taboo in the Arab culture, it is imperative that we collectively ensure that our children’s well- being is at the forefront of our efforts. Like the old proverb says, “ it takes a village to raise a child”, we must all do our part in educating, empowering and supporting families to seek help when needed and offering services that are trauma informed and culturally and linguistically appropriate.

A joint project of Advocate Health Care & the OCEAN-HP at the University of Illinois at Chicago.