After her daughter’s tumultuous life ended in a car crash on the Big Island in 2016, Deborah Goodwin tried to get custody of her 2-year-old grandson, who at the time had been placed in foster care with non-relatives.
She’d been involved in J.J.’s upbringing all along, even singing to him when he was still in the womb.
The state of Hawaii said no.
Goodwin, executive director of a nonprofit arts organization in Waimea, went through training and studied to qualify to foster J.J. She passed a home study showing she could provide a safe home.
For almost a year and a half, she says state child welfare workers did not even tell her she had been approved as a suitable foster parent for J.J.
Even after they did, they still said no.
In 2018, after her visits with J.J. had been reduced to just once a month, Goodwin petitioned to adopt him. The state objected – with no explanation, she says.
Instead, state officials said J.J. should be placed with the family who had fostered him since shortly before his mother’s death. It was a matter of continuity, the state said – since they had placed J.J. with the foster family on the Big Island for these three years, it would be disruptive to move him.
Now Goodwin is locked in a legal battle with the state Department of Human Services in parallel actions in family court and a lawsuit in Circuit Court, in what she sees as a last-ditch effort to be reunited with her grandson.
“Grieving and mourning is a journey unto itself,” she said, referring to the death of her daughter, Sarah Thurber, in 2016. “Having the shock of entering a system that was denying me access to my grandson, and still has – it’s beyond belief. It’s incomprehensible.”
It’s meant lost sleep and anxiety, as Goodwin has fought the state, dealt with grief over the loss of her only child, all the while longing to be reunited with her grandson.
J.J., now 5, flashes an engaging smile and “loves all things ocean,” she says, from bodyboarding to snorkeling. Goodwin, a marine biologist by training, is well-equipped to deal with his boundless curiosity about how the world works.
“He’s very conscious of time,” Goodwin said. “It’s been very difficult for him to leave me. We’ve just had to trust our love is always there.”
The Department of Human Services said it could not comment because of the ongoing litigation.
“However, the goal of DHS Child Welfare Services is always to provide for the best interests of the child,” spokeswoman Keopu Reelitz wrote in an email.
“The role of a loving and supportive grandparent is among the many factors considered — with guidance from multiple stakeholders including the guardian ad litem, other biological relatives, and resource or foster caregivers — to settle on an optimum placement for the child and to gain the approval of the family court.”
Whatever its reasons, DHS’s position in Goodwin’s case represents an exception to its longstanding policy of seeking out relatives in child custody cases whenever possible.
When a child is put in foster care, for instance, child welfare workers try to locate relatives within 30 days and convene meetings with family members who might take custody. DHS tells foster parents that the placement is temporary until the child can be reunified with parents or a suitable relative is found.
Hawaii law specifies that a relative who wants to foster a child should be given an application within 15 days, and that if the application is denied, the department should give reasons.
The department boasts that it places foster children with relatives at a higher rate than any other state.
In 2016, because of this record, DHS officials were even invited to take part in a multi-state meeting to develop “best practices” for kinship foster care. The Hawaii delegation was particularly influential in finalizing one of the recommended steps: “Identify and engage kin for kids at every step.”
At the same time, the number of foster children placed with blood relatives declined in Hawaii after 2016. That led the state to review its practices to determine the cause of the drop.
In 2017, a federal review of the state’s child welfare operation found it lacking in placing foster children with relatives. “Hawaii received an overall rating of Area Needing Improvement,” the assessment concluded after reviewing 44 cases. The state points out that the feds set the goals high and that most states are told they need to improve.
Despite DHS’s policies encouraging placement with kin, a 2014 Hawaii Supreme Court decision found that the statute does not contain an explicit or mandatory preference for relatives. The overriding factor is “the best interests of the child.”
That’s not to say it has no bearing whatsoever.
“Kinship, as exemplified in the statutes, is an anchoring proposition in the sea of circumstances considered in the decision as to adoption, legal guardianship or permanent custody,” according to a concurring opinion in the Supreme Court case.
In that case, DHS took the opposite position than it did in Goodwin’s, arguing for a child to go to a maternal aunt rather than non-relative foster parents, but was overruled by a family court judge. The decision was later upheld by the Supreme Court.
In Goodwin’s case, by contrast, DHS didn’t give the child’s closest relative a fair shot, said her attorney Doug Chin, the former lieutenant governor and attorney general.
“What you have here is a case of DHS and workers over there making real poor decisions that have kept this child away from his maternal grandmother,” Chin said.
Goodwin knew nothing of these legal niceties when she tried to help her daughter hold her life together when she became pregnant with J.J.
She had raised Sarah as a single mother, mostly in Hawaii, while she worked in various leadership positions for employers such as the W.M. Keck Observatory to The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii.
Sarah had first shown signs of bipolar disorder at the age of 16 and struggled for the rest of her brief life with mental illness and drug addiction. A year or so before giving birth to J.J., she lost custody of her first child, a daughter, who went to live with her biological father.
Sarah Thurber met J.J.’s biological father at a Texas rehab, but he was never involved in his son’s life.
Goodwin said her home in North Kona was a place of refuge during Thurber’s pregnancy and afterwards, even as the young woman struggled to hold a job or navigate social service programs to get financial support.
“In his first moments,” Goodwin said, “I was there feeding him, changing diapers.”
She would take him on walks with her dogs on trails near her house, where the jacarandas turn the forest purple, and to investigate the tidal pools along the Kona coast.
Her daughter’s ability to cope started falling apart completely by the end of 2015, Goodwin recalls. Thurber started using drugs and drinking, which were debilitating for someone with her condition.
Predictably, the police got involved.
Once, Goodwin got a call that her daughter had been arrested. She drove around a brush fire in Kona to pick up her grandson at the jailhouse. Six days later, after her daughter got out of jail and showed up demanding her son, Goodwin called the police, who prevented her from taking J.J. because she didn’t have a valid license or a car seat.
Goodwin got a temporary restraining order against her daughter. And she contacted child welfare services, so that J.J. could be placed in a safe environment where his mother could not reach him.
According to Goodwin’s lawsuit, a few months later, a child welfare worker falsely claimed that Goodwin had called for help because she was incapable of caring for J.J. herself, not because she wanted to get him someplace safe.
This turned out to be crucial – the allegation that Goodwin had declared herself unable to deal with her grandson formed the basis of the state’s later denials, the lawsuit claims.
The state returned J.J. to his mother a couple of months later, but it did not go well. Three months later, she apparently abandoned him to friends, who called child welfare services. Soon, J.J. was back with the foster family, underweight and neglected and diagnosed with “failure to thrive.”
A month later, Thurber died in a head-on collision when she crossed the center line on the highway in North Kona.
Goodwin immediately took steps to qualify as a caregiver, submitting her application to be his foster parent just 12 days after Thurber’s death. A few months later, Catholic Charities, the state’s contractor for assessing would-be foster and adoptive families, approved her to care for J.J. – a fact that she says she did not learn until 17 months afterwards. Goodwin said DHS never explained why it held onto the report for so long without telling her.
“I was vetted, I was approved,” she said. “And yet nothing was done.”
The case was held up for some time as DHS located the father in Texas to assure he did not have an interest in gaining custody of J.J. Goodwin’s ex-husband in Utah expressed an interest in adoption, she said, but he had only met J.J. once, and eventually withdrew.
In the meantime, Goodwin struggled with child welfare workers to allow her more time with J.J., especially at times when he could also visit with his sister. The state often said no, the visits would be disruptive for J.J. or conflicted with the foster family’s plans.
In late 2016, she said, she petitioned to become a party in J.J.’s child protection case, but the state objected and the family court didn’t allow it.
DHS also objected to Goodwin’s petition in 2018 to adopt J.J. herself.
So in March, Goodwin filed a lawsuit against the state, two child protection workers as individuals and the foster parents. The lawsuit says the defendants were negligent in inflicting emotional distress and training and supervising employees, violating laws and regulations and the state constitution.
In its response, the state this month said that only the family court has jurisdiction over the case and that the state workers are immune from liability. A hearing has been set for July 1.
Goodwin’s lawsuit seeks damages and an injunction blocking the state from continuing to violate laws and statutes. And it seeks an order for the state to reassign custody of J.J. to Goodwin.
“The challenge for DHS has always been that you have some relatively low-ranking people having the discretion to make some very important decisions that impact people’s lives,” Chin said.
These kinds of cases, he said, should be reviewed and approved by officials at the highest levels.
“Until that changes, ” he said, “you’ll continue to have the problems DHS has.”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.