One of the most pressing, puzzling questions in the alleged murder of 6-year-old Isabella Kalua is how her adoptive family was ever deemed qualified to provide foster care for her and her siblings in the first place.

Isaac “Sonny” Kalua III, Isabella’s adoptive father, had felony convictions for terroristic threatening and assault that could have disqualified him from ever becoming a state-licensed foster parent. That might have prevented his adoption of Isabella this year.

Isabella’s adoptive mother, Lehua Kalua, was arrested in a felony drug case in 2000 under her maiden name of Kanahele, and she submitted a statement to the court in 2001 that a judge in her case said amounted to a “confession,” according to court records.

Her case was dismissed after Lehua Kalua graduated from drug court in 2002, but that old felony drug arrest also could have disqualified the Kalua family from being licensed to care for Isabella or other foster children.

State rules governing the licensing of foster families make it clear the child welfare system has discretion to refuse to license a foster family when household members have any convictions that suggest there is a risk to a child.

For example, state rules specify a history of workplace violence or arrests for driving under the influence can disqualify a family. In fact, any conviction under circumstances that indicate a household member poses a risk to the “health, safety or well-being of children” can be grounds for denial. But offenses like the Kalua’s fall into a gray area — unlike some criminal convictions, they did not automatically disqualify them.

As a result, Isabella and her 12-year-old sister were allowed to move in with the Kaluas in February of 2019, according to a police affidavit, and on Jan. 26 the girls were adopted into the family along with a younger sibling.

Isaac and Lehua Kalua are now charged with second-degree murder in the disappearance of Isabella, along with hindering prosecution, endangering the welfare of a minor and persistent nonsupport of the child.

Isaac and Lehua Kalua
Lehua and Isaac Kalua, who were charged with second-degree murder in connection with the death of their adoptive daughter Isabella. The case raises questions about state rules that govern which families can be licensed to provide foster care. HPD

Isabella, whose birth name was Ariel Sellers, was reported missing from the family’s Waimanalo home on Sept. 13. Her body has not been found.

Isabella’s 12-year-old sister told authorities she and Lehua Kalua found Isabella dead in a dog cage where she was forced to sleep in a bathroom of the house, with duct tape over her nose and mouth, according to a police affidavit. The sister told police that Isabella “didn’t wake up.”

Isabella was tied up with duct tape “plenty of times” while they lived in the Kalua home, and was forced to sleep in the dog cage because she would wander the Waimanalo house seeking food, the sister told police. She told authorities that was because Lehua Kalua didn’t feed Isabella.

Lehua Kalua is also charged with abuse of a family or household member.

The Child Welfare Services administrative rules that spell out the licensing requirements for Hawaii foster families require that candidates disclose criminal convictions. The state also mandates criminal history checks of applicants, using fingerprints to run FBI clearances.

The state also requires checks of the child abuse and neglect registries in Hawaii and any other state where the applicants have lived in the previous five years.

In general, the child welfare system rules require that the adults in the household “shall not have a criminal history record or background which poses a risk to the health, safety or well-being of children in care.”

That specifically includes felony convictions for child abuse or neglect, spouse abuse, a crime against children, “or for a crime involving violence, including rape, sexual assault or homicide, but not including other physical assault or battery,” according to the rules.

The Hawaii Department of Human Services’ rules specify certain kinds of crimes that prevent families from being licensed to provide foster care, but convictions for drug offenses or assault can be overlooked if they did not occur in the previous five years. Civil Beat/2010

The rules go on to prohibit licensing for any family with a member in the household who has a felony conviction within the last five years “for physical assault, battery, or a drug-related offense.”

That portion of Hawaii’s state rules tracks federal law almost word for word, including the specific exceptions that make it possible for families to qualify as foster homes when household members have assault or drug-related convictions for offenses that happened more than five years ago.

The Kaluas’ criminal cases fell well outside that time frame, and in any event, Lehua Kalua was never actually convicted.

In Isaac Kalua’s case, a criminal history check would have turned up his convictions for terroristic threatening, two counts of second-degree assault and attempted assault, all of which he pled guilty to in 2000. Lehua Kalua’s drug arrest — although it did not end in a conviction — should also have appeared.

Kalua was sentenced to two weeks in jail and five years probation, and ordered to undergo substance abuse treatment. But given the time that passed before the arrival of Isabella and her siblings in the Kalua household in 2019, the CWS rules did not specifically prohibit placement of the children there.

The state Department of Human Services refused to discuss the Kalua case specifically, but said in a written reply to questions that “if the potential resource caregiver or adopted parent has a criminal conviction other than those above specified felony convictions, CWS will conduct an assessment that considers the type of criminal offense, when it occurred, and evidence of rehabilitation to determine if the criminal history poses a risk to the health, safety, or well-being of children …”

Isabella Kalua
Isabella Kalua’s body has not been found, but her adoptive parents have been charged with second-degree murder. Honolulu Police Department

But Steve Lane, a longtime Hawaii foster parent and a paralegal, contends that it is “outrageous” that foster children could have been placed in the Kalua home given the safeguards that are supposed to be built into the system.

Those safeguards include Family Court supervision of the case, and a court-appointed guardian ad litem appointed to represent the interests of the children.

As for the foster licensing of the Kaluas, “the guidelines that the state provides for foster placement … provide more than adequate opportunity for the state to say no,” said Lane, who has served as a “special master” assigned to review the facts in several child abuse cases. “There is plenty of latitude to say no, especially when you get a foster parent with multiple felony violent offenses and convictions.”

“Having been both a foster parent and an adoptive parent, I would never have been licensed had I had a record like that,” Lane said. “It is inconceivable to me that this could have happened.”

Bill Bettencourt, senior fellow with the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington, D.C., said any application to become a foster parent by someone with a history such as that of Isaac Kalua should have been reviewed “at the highest level” of CWS.

Bettencourt stressed that he cannot speak to the specifics of the Hawaii case, but said an arrest and conviction for a violent offense is “pretty extreme.” Bettencourt was deputy director of the Family and Children’s Services Division in San Francisco from 1995 to 2001.

“Everywhere, if there was any kind of a violent conviction, that would be a flag, a rare exception made, and the circumstances would have to be something that happened a long time ago, and nothing since, perhaps,” he said. “What were the circumstances? Was this a young, stupid thing this person got involved in, and then got their life together, for example?”

“I would make the assumption that they looked at the court record, they looked at the circumstances, and there were some things in there that even though it looks bad on the surface, were determined to be worthy of taking a look at, given the fact that nothing (further) had happened in 20 years,” Bettencourt said.

Bettencourt also said the CWS system may be more willing to overlook minor criminal offenses in cases where a child-specific placement is being considered.  Those are cases where the state contemplates placing a child with people who are blood relations of the biological parents, or are such close friends or neighbors that they might be considered hanai.

“In those circumstances, you do want to try to keep kids in their community, with their school, with their friends, with their connections,” Bettencourt said. In those kinds of situations an old marijuana arrest, for example, might seem less important than the bonds a child has to friends or family who are willing to take them in.

“That’s more like where that happens,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be much more likely to happen when it’s somebody who is family or like family, where you can reduce the impact of this child having to be removed from their parent.”

This is not a new debate for the state.

National research shows Hawaii places almost half of its foster children with relatives — which is the highest rate in the nation — and Hawaii CWS officials in 2003 considered the issue of potential foster parents with old criminal records in a hefty report on the state system.

The report noted that Hawaii applies the same criminal history check requirements to child-specific placements — those involving family members or friends of the family — as it does to general licensed foster homes.

But the 2003 report detailed an internal discussion about cases in which CWS caseworkers did a cursory assessment of factors, including criminal histories, before deeming families to be suitable to provide foster care and placing children there.

Problems arose in some of those cases when a different social worker tasked with overseeing licensing later concluded some of those families were “unlicensable,” according to the report.

“When the standards were first applied to relatives, many relatives did not meet the standards, and the department was faced with the dilemma of removing children from homes in which they had already established bonds, or leaving them in homes that could not meet licensing standards,” according to the 2003 report.

“Although efforts were made to help the families meet licensing requirements (in areas such as space requirements), a significant number had a prior criminal history record (e.g., conviction on record (a) long time ago, rehabilitated, no subsequent arrests or convictions),” the report explained. “In some cases, when the department attempted to remove the child, the removal was denied by family court.”

“Unfortunately until the department is able to maintain a population of foster homes larger than the population of children needing placement, licensing families who only marginally meet these standards will continue,” the report added.

A follow-up CWS Statewide Assessment Report published in 2017 said criminal history background checks were again “an area needing improvement,” and explained the state had begun to develop new procedures.

In a written response to questions about those reports, CWS said that “similar issues and needs remain. These issues and needs are not unique to our state.”

“As a department, we have worked with our federal oversight agencies, community stakeholders, and numerous philanthropic organizations, to build more robust resources for foster youth and their families,” CWS said in its statement.

CWS also said in its written statement it is in the process of updating its licensing requirements to conform to 2019 federal guidance.

That federal guidance does not amend the list of convictions that automatically disqualify families from providing foster care, but CWS said the new rules may be helpful to social workers in cases where family members have histories that include arrests or convictions.

“Although the proposed administrative rules are still being finalized, it is anticipated that the proposed rules may affect, among other areas, the criminal background checks, including the rehabilitation assessment,” the department said in its written statement.

“The proposed new administrative rules will provide clarification to the licensing requirements so that CWS will be able to find qualified resource caregiver homes for our youth in foster care,” according to the statement.

The CWS statement also said the department has received “credible threats” in the aftermath of the Kalua case, and “we have become very concerned for the well-being and safety of our CWS workers, who are also grieving this loss.”

“We call on the community to allow our dedicated staff to safely continue with their critical work to respond to reports of child abuse and neglect, and to provide support for the children in the foster care system,” said the written statement from CWS. “We remain committed to protecting our vulnerable children and making decisions based on what is in their best interests.”

The department asks that anyone who suspects child abuse or neglect call 1-888-380-3088.

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