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In 2015, Kathleen Buck found a place to rent just behind the Kahala Mall. She considered it perfect for the five grandchildren she desperately wanted to adopt.
Buck pruned the tangerine and grapefruit trees in the front yard to coax a bounty of fresh fruit for the kids. She planted vegetables out back and set up bunk beds.
One of the clients of her house-cleaning business gave her a grand piano, which she moved into the spacious living room of the four-bedroom house. Other clients, having heard of her struggle to get custody of her grandkids, donated children’s books. Eventually the donations crammed a bookcase to overflowing.
But the five grandchildren, ages 13 to 5, have never seen the house on Pueo Street.
Buck has not seen them in two years. She does not know whether they’ve already been adopted by someone else. Or if she will ever see them again.
For four years, ever since her daughter and her partner in Florida lost their parental rights, Buck has tried to gain custody as a foster parent and, when that failed, to adopt them.
That has meant navigating a complex interstate process in which Florida has asked Hawaii to determine if Buck was capable of taking care of the five children.
Though she’s been living for three years in a $1.7 million Kahala house, the agencies in charge of doing the reviews have repeatedly told her that she lacks the money to support them in a place as expensive as Hawaii.
But a review of the records in Buck’s case raises questions about whether she got a fair shot.
She said that Catholic Charities Hawaii, a nonprofit paid by the state to assess foster families, gave her only four days to produce letters from her house-cleaning clients declaring how much they paid her per month. Some clients were on vacation or simply forgot, she said. So the “home study” done to assess her financial capacity didn’t count this income.
The study concluded she spent more than she made. But if the late letters from clients had been taken into account, Catholic Charities would have reached the opposite conclusion.
Catholic Charities says it has no record of letters from clients that came in after the deadline. But Buck showed Civil Beat two emails she sent to a Catholic Charities social worker documenting this income.
A couple of months later, Buck sent letters from all of her 18 clients to the Florida agency handling the foster placement of her grandchildren. But that nonprofit, Wesley House Family Services, also rejected her application, saying she lacked the financial wherewithal.
Buck cites many other inaccuracies in the home study. She says Catholic Charities failed to take into account an important source of income, regular support she gets from her mother in Pennsylvania for expenses such as a car, clothes for the children and security deposits.
In written responses to Civil Beat, Catholic Charities defended its assessment of Buck. The home study was extended by several weeks to give her a chance to get together her financial records, said Darlene Beatty, division administrator for Family and Therapeutic Services. Several times, Beatty said, the agency outlined to Buck what she needed to do.
“We take our job very seriously in verifying qualified resource caregiver,” she stated.
“Our Catholic Charities Hawaii staff works closely with an applicant in gathering their background information and records to determine whether they are qualified to raise a child or children in a safe, stable and secure home environment.”
Buck’s failure to win approval in 2015 has undermined her efforts ever since.
In late 2017, after learning that the children are now up for adoption, she put in an application. But because of the earlier denial, Catholic Charities told the state of Florida that it would not do a new home study unless Buck could show that she now has enough money.
She submitted her 2016 tax returns, which she says do not reflect her current finances because she was traveling back and forth to Florida that year to try to get custody, interrupting her house-cleaning work.
Her financial circumstances have changed since the 2015 home study.
She no longer pays $800 a month to send her youngest daughter to La Pietra–Hawaii School for Girls, for instance. In fact, the daughter, Jessica, is now working and contributing to the rent, along with her husband.
Buck says her house cleaning business is thriving, with a waiting list of clients willing to pay her rate of $35 an hour. She says she pulled in almost $5,000 per month in gross income during the first two months of the year.
But it wasn’t enough.
“The forms that you provided still illustrate that the financial stability in the home is not sufficient,” Wesley House, the Florida agency, wrote Buck in February. “The state of Hawaii has denied the third referral for a home study. The adoption application will not be processed.”
The 61-year-old grandmother tears up when talking about her struggle.
“Those children mean the world to me, and I’m sure they’re wondering why we haven’t gotten in touch,” she said.
One of the last times she saw her grandchildren, her grandson Maui sat on her shoulders the whole time, held on to her hair and wouldn’t let go. The foster family told her she could no longer visit the children at their home – they became too emotional, Buck says she was told.
She flew to Florida in 2016 to see them at the offices of the Florida agency overseeing the case. Though she was there for five days, she was allowed to see them for only 40 minutes. She said her granddaughters clung to her legs, begging her to take them home with her.
“Now,” she said, “I don’t think they remember me. This is stealing my opportunity to be a grandmother.”
She believes they are in the home of a distant relative of their father, but they may have been split between two households.
Buck’s case is particularly puzzling because Hawaii has a general preference for placing children with family members when possible.
And the state has shown a willingness to accept foster caregivers whose income is low enough to qualify for help with food or housing – neither of which Buck needs.
She lives simply. She doesn’t own a television, eat out or spend on luxuries. If she did adopt the children, she would get payments from Florida to help support them.
“I’ve never had an abundance of money, but I’ve always had a nice place to live,” she said.
“I don’t think they remember me. This is stealing my opportunity to be a grandmother.” — Kathleen Buck
The state Department of Human Services, which oversees foster and adoptive care, says that it does not use rigid financial criteria for determining the necessary income to take in children. That’s because living costs vary widely around the state. Income that’s enough in a rural area of the Big Island might not cut it in the more expensive parts of Honolulu, for instance.
But one result of that approach is that decisions about where children will spend their formative years and what relatives they will know can hinge on the judgments of social workers.
Catholic Charities is the sole contractor for the state doing home studies under the interstate compact. The agency did 61 in the 2016 fiscal year. It also performs home studies in cases where a family is asking to foster a specific child, as opposed to those who want a general approval for taking in children.
Buck grew up outside of Philadelphia, where she attended a private school for fatherless girls. (Her father died when she was 6.) In high school, a roommate taught her to sail and it would soon become a big part of her life.
In college, her studies in nutrition and herbal medicine sparked an interest in Hawaii. So when some acquaintances sailing a yacht from San Diego to Maui invited her to come along, she accepted.
The friends decided not to continue on to the South Pacific, where Buck wanted to go, so she volunteered on other crews until she found one sailing for the Marquesas Islands. There, she met Anders Ahman, a Swede who became the father of four of her five children. One of them was Kristina, the mother of five children that Buck is now trying to adopt.
After delivering a boat from Tahiti to Hawaii, Ahman and Buck stayed in Maui while she gave birth to a son. But after six months or so, Ahman learned that his mother in Sweden was dying, and the couple moved there to be closer to her.
Buck spent 23 years in Sweden, where she and Ahman split up amicably but continued to cooperate in raising the children. She returned to Pennsylvania to help care for an ailing sister and then, in 2009, back to Hawaii, where one of her sons had moved.
A year later, her daughter Kristina and her partner also moved to Hawaii, where Buck and Ahman rented them an apartment for six months and Buck helped take care of the children.
Things went badly for Kristina and her partner, Chris Williams, a registered sex offender convicted in 2001 of sexual battery of a victim under the age of 16. Kristina got evicted from her apartment and ended up in a homeless shelter. She found another place, but she and Williams fought. They became homeless again, and Buck was unable to take in Kristina and the children because her lease would not allow it.
She asked Catholic Charities Hawaii for help in a security deposit for Kristina, but was denied. She said she was later told by a Florida official that Catholic Charities considered the incident in 2012 a “red flag.” Catholic Charities says her request for help in 2012 did not play a part in its later assessments.
Not long after that incident, with help from Ahman and her mother, Buck was able to find a four-bedroom apartment that could accommodate Kristina and the children, now including newborn twins.
Chris Williams, meanwhile, moved back to Florida. One day in 2014, with almost no warning, Buck’s daughter Kristina announced that she was taking the kids to reunite with him.
The turmoil and violence that plagued their relationship in Hawaii continued in Florida. Soon, Kristina was homeless again. Five months after she had left Hawaii, while she was at a new job, authorities came to the children’s schools and day cares and took custody of them.
A court terminated the couple’s parental rights. That gave new urgency to Buck’s attempts to get them back.
Her application to become the kids’ foster parent and bring them back to Hawaii was governed by the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children. Under that agreement, Florida would ask Hawaii to conduct a home study to see if she could support the children.
After an initial home study was called off because she was between apartments, one was done in 2015. It focused on Buck’s finances. Civil Beat reviewed these figures in detail, because they were the sole basis of the agency’s denial.
Her 2014 tax returns showed income of $31,545 but a net of only $14,164, once her business expenses such as transportation had been deducted. But that tax return did not reflect her situation at the time of the home study. Buck had landed a lucrative new client, heiress Abigail Kawananakoa, considered Hawaii’s last princess, who would be paying her almost $30,000 a year.
Catholic Charities agreed to accept that revenue in its analysis, but only reluctantly, saying that because it was a new client, “it is unclear how long this income will last.”
Another sticking point was a commitment of $1,500 per month from Ahman, a construction manager who for years had helped Buck with expenses for the children and grandchildren.
Ahman at first assured Catholic Charities that he would dedicate $1,500 for his grandchildren’s expenses for six months. But after the agency raised questions, he submitted a notarized statement promising to support them beyond that.
“So to be 100% clear,” he wrote, “…I will contribute what is necessary to solve the situation so the children can stay with either Kathleen or with my daughter. As both I and Kathleen have stated before, we are willing to do whatever necessary to let our grandchildren stay with their family.”
Catholic Charities remained skeptical. It ended up counting his contribution, but contended that it was “not guaranteed income,” another piece of evidence that Buck’s finances were tenuous.
The nonprofit met with Buck on a Monday and gave her a deadline to submit documentation of her income from her cleaning business clients by the end of the week.
Several clients did respond by then, and Buck submitted them to Catholic Charities. But others trickled in after the deadline and were not counted. Catholic Charities says Buck’s case file does not include the late client letters. But Buck shared with Civil Beat the two emails forwarded to the social worker who did the home study, who has since left the nonprofit.
It turned out to make all the difference. The home study concluded that Buck was spending $525 a month more than she brought in. But the income from the clients who reported after the deadline was more than enough to put her in the black.
Buck also provided Civil Beat with emails she sent a few months later to the Florida agency, Wesley House, documenting income that was not counted in the home study. Wesley House refused to reopen her case. The agency declined to comment to Civil Beat.
The home study makes no mention at all of regular financial help Buck gets from her mother in Pennsylvania.
There’s no evidence that Buck ever formally cited that income in her application, or that Catholic Charities asked about it. But Buck recalls telling the case worker who did the home study — who had expressed surprise that Buck was living in such a nice house — that her mother had covered the deposit. She believes that she mentioned it other times as well.
Catholic Charities says she only brought it up after the second home study had been done.
The home study was riddled with factual errors, Buck said, including the date she graduated from high school, whether her sons were single or married and the year she moved to Sweden. These errors did not appear to play a part in the agency’s decision, but left Buck feeling that the case worker had not given her application the care it deserved.
It rankled Buck that Catholic Charities said the first home study had been denied because of her finances, when it was called off because she was looking for a new apartment. She also took issue with the agency using the loaded term “evicted” to characterize her moving out to make way for her landlord’s son.
And though it was true that she slept in her rental car on one of her trips to Florida, as the report stated, it was not for lack of money. She parked near the homeless shelter where the grandchildren were staying, she said, to maximize her chance to see them.
“They took me sleeping in my car as something totally awful,” she said.
That home study continued to haunt Buck’s case two years later when she found out her grandchildren were being put up for adoption.
After she put in an application, Wesley House asked Hawaii to perform yet another home study.
The agency said that it would not do one until Buck could show “verifiable proof of income.”
In response, Buck sent her 2016 tax returns.
Wesley House said it wasn’t enough.
Because the agency declined to answer questions from Civil Beat, it’s not clear whether they considered only her taxes from two years ago, or also took into account the many changes in her circumstances – the waiting list of clients, the end of her $800-a-month tuition payments, or her daughter’s contribution to household expenses. Not to mention the help she’s gotten, all along, from her mother.
She just got the simple email from Wesley House, without even a salutation: “The adoption application will not be processed.”
Over the years, she’s taken her case to Queen Silvia of Sweden and President Obama, not to mention a wide array of Hawaii elected officials. And though she doesn’t know whether someone else has already adopted the children, she doesn’t intend to quit.
“Love is the strongest energy ever,” she said. “Not money – love. Love is what makes everything work, and I love those kids.”