San Francisco, CA — A law-abiding mother whose life was turned upside down following an argument with her daughters has been cleared of child endangerment and threats, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi announced today.
Jurors on Friday acquitted Yu Fen Huang, 51, of criminal threats. A second charge, abusing or endangering the health of a child, resulted in the jury hanging 11-1 in favor of not guilty. Prosecutors dismissed the charge on Monday.
The charges carry a maximum penalty of a year in jail. Huang, a legal resident of the U.S. for 19 years, would have also risked deportation to China, said her attorney, Deputy Public Defender Linda Yu.
Huang, a preschool janitor with no criminal record or history of violence, was arrested July 19 in the family’s efficiency studio in Chinatown. She had spent the day making a slow-cooking, culturally significant soup for her daughters, 12 and 14. When the soup was finished, she offered it to the girls before leaving the apartment for a few minutes. In her absence, the girls poured the untouched soup down the drain. They retreated up a ladder to a plywood loft inside the small residence.
Huang returned and was chopping vegetables when she noticed the soup in the sink. She confronted the girls, taking a step up the ladder. Her older daughter kicked the loft door closed, slamming it in Huang’s face. With the vegetable knife still in her hand, Huang banged on the loft door and scolded the girls, saying “I’ll chop you up,” and muttering to herself, “I’d rather light myself on fire than deal with this.”
Huang’s older daughter called 911, summoning the police. None of the responding officers could speak Huang’s language, Toisanese. A Cantonese speaking officer was able to communicate with her in a basic fashion, but was unable to grasp Huang’s explanation that she was trying to discipline her girls.
At the police station, she was interrogated by another Cantonese speaking officer, who wrote in his report that Huang told him she sawed the knife in and out of her daughters’ door to frighten them.
At the trial, Yu presented both the tape and the transcript of Huang’s interrogation, revealing that Huang never made the statement the officer claimed in his report.
Both of Huang’s daughters took the stand. The older girl admitted she was very angry with her mother, rather than frightened, and the only physical discipline she could remember was a slap on the hand when she was in kindergarten. The younger girl testified that she did not become frightened until her sister called the police.
Huang had been unable to go home to her husband or see her girls since her arrest due to a restraining order. Her family, who did not want her prosecuted, packed the courtroom. The arrest also caused her to be suspended from her job.
During the trial, Yu argued that Huang telling her daughters she would cut them up amounted to nothing more than the hyperbole of frustrated parent, comparable to “I brought you into this world and I can take you out.”
Huang’s sister-in-law, who is also her neighbor, testified to Huang’s reputation for honesty and non-violence.
“Ms. Huang is tremendously relieved that she can go home to her family and return to her job,” Yu said. “To a 14-year-old, the world is black and white. The truth is that an imperfect parent is not a criminal parent.”
Adachi said Huang’s case shows how people accused of even minor crimes can face life-changing consequences.
“Ms. Huang’s charges were misdemeanors, but the potential immigration consequences were far worse than a stint in county jail. Despite being a law-abiding, legal resident for nearly two decades, she would have become deportable. Fortunately, Ms. Huang’s public defender was able to mend some of the damage cause by the arrest.”