Anyone who works with San Mateo County’s Tongan population — one of the largest outside of the Polynesian nation of Tonga — will tell you they are a warm-hearted, devout and family-centered people.
But they also will tell you that Tongans face some of the biggest challenges of any Peninsula minority group.
Domestic violence, tobacco and alcohol use, high school dropout rates, gang activity, obesity, lack of access to health care and suicide are all widespread problems, community organizers say, yet a lack of data has prevented the community from qualifying for local, county and federal funding.
If researchers manage to complete an ongoing health study of 600 Pacific Islanders — who include Tongans, Samoans, and Fijians — that situation could soon change.
“The study would be a solid backup for anything a group in the community would like to do, like after-school programs for kids or programs for at-risk youth,” said Leafa Taumoepeau, director of Taulama for Tongans, a San Mateo health services group. “The possibilities would be limitless.”
The study, to be completed by May, could also be used to influence federal policy, said Sela Panapasa of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, which is overseeing the study.
According to the 2010 census, there are 57,183 Tongans in the United States. County officials estimate that about 13,000 of them live in San Mateo County.
Three hundred local Tongans will be interviewed as part of the research.
Although the study began in 2009, surveyors have reached just 20 local interviewees, said Taumoepeau, since respondents — selected at random from church rosters — can be difficult to track down and may not understand the survey’s importance. Funding for the study is also relatively small, said Panapasa.
Yet without more data to justify intervention programs, Taumoepeau said child and elderly abuse, domestic violence, and the numbers of Tongans ending up in juvenile hall will all continue to rise.
Past studies on the Pacific Islander community, which Panapasa said were not “scientifically sound,” reveal alarming facts.
Nineteen percent of young Pacific Islanders in the county have tried to commit suicide, 11 percent carry a weapon for protection, 56 percent have shoplifted in the past 12 months, and 45 percent have skipped school in the last month, according to a 2010 presentation by officials in the county’s Pacific Islander Initiative Program.
Statistics also show that Tongans are worse off than other minorities in a number of areas, particularly obesity, and access to prenatal care.
While there are programs for Tongans and Pacific Islanders around the county, including the Tongan Interfaith Council, Somoan Solutions, Polyminds and San Mateo’s Wellness Initiative, many Tongans don’t use them, said Michelle Vilchez, director of the Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center.
Taumoepeau, an in-law of the Tongan royal family whose brother is Tonga’s consul general in San Francisco, said many existing programs fail to bridge a cultural gap.
Hailing from an uncolonized, largely undeveloped country where most people raise their own food and live under an absolute monarchy, Tongans have different ideas about government, education and discipline, Taumoepeau said.
“Most of the kids are being Tongan at home and American at school,” and thus receive conflicting messages about what to wear, whether to speak up to elders, and whether to focus on schoolwork or their family’s demands, said Malissa Netane, a Pacific Islander Community Facilitator for the Conflict Resolution Center.
Overweight students in San Mateo County, 2003-04 school year:
Source: 2005 from the California Center for Public Health Advocacy
Received prenatal care late or not at all:
Source: Birth records tracked by the California Department of Health Statistics between 2000 and 2004
Tongan youth in San Mateo County:
Source: Taulama for Tongans