Editor’s Note: This is another installment in our occasional series, It’s Your Money, that looks more closely at public expenses that taxpayers may not realize they’re being asked to pay.
State social workers in the late 1990s placed five siblings in a home with their aunt and her husband, a convicted rapist who was later pardoned.
And when Department of Human Services officials realized their error and tried to correct it, they should have opposed the family’s wish to put the kids in the care of that same aunt’s adult children, attorneys later argued. It was too close in proximity to a dangerous environment.
The kids endured years of mental and physical abuse at the hands of the aunt, Rita Makekau, and the couple that in 2000 became their legal guardians, Gabriel and Barbara Kalama. The abuse didn’t stop until the oldest boy confided in a classmate who then told a teacher.
Criminal charges were filed and the case went to court, where attorneys described the kids’ living conditions as a “house of horror.” Vicious beatings. Dog food for dinner. Sexual assault.
The abuse allegedly started in 2004 and persisted until the kids were removed in 2006, attorneys said.
A judge decided to put the aunt, Rita Makekau, and the guardians, Gabriel and Barbara Kalama, behind bars — at least for a little while.
A subsequent civil case to get the children some financial relief ended in a $550,000 settlement with the state, which is where we’re at today in this sad saga.
The Legislature is in the process of deciding whether to approve the claim, which is just one of many that combined will cost taxpayers millions of dollars. If history is any indicator, lawmakers will pass the bill as recommended by the attorney general’s office.
Former Honolulu deputy prosecutor Lori Wada, who handled the criminal case, said someone has to be held accountable and in this instance that’s DHS since it put the children there.
“In a perfect world where there’s no underpaid, overworked state employees, I’m sure they would’ve caught it a lot sooner,” she said.
Wada said the social workers put their trust in family members, but it unfortunately ended horribly. She said she hopes the settlement helps makes the kids’ lives a bit easier.
“I’m glad they are going to get something … because the damage and scarring is a going to last a lifetime,” she said, adding that she wished the settlement was significantly higher.
Honolulu attorney Dennis Potts, who represented the children, said there was also a confidential settlement with another defendant in the case that will give the kids additional financial relief.
He said the case was the first of its kind in Hawaii, because the negligent claim they were alleging happened before the abuse started.
Potts said the settlement with the state is based on the belief that DHS should have known not to approve this guardianship from the get-go. It didn’t necessarily factor in the subsequent abuse that happened.
He said he hopes lawmakers approve the settlement and don’t accidentally forget to pass the appropriations bill like they did in 2010, which delayed claims payments a year.
DHS spokeswoman Kayla Rosenfeld said it is the general policy of DHS and the AG not to comment on questions regarding the status of investigations or settlements.
She acknowledged that this case has been settled, but did not answer questions about whether DHS should be on the hook.
Three new claims were added this month to House Bill 775, bringing the total request up to $4.85 million. Historically, the Legislature will continue to amend the claims bill throughout the session as new settlements come in for approval.