Bella was sitting in her fifth grade classroom at Waikoloa Elementary and Middle School five days before Christmas in 2019 when the principal told her that her father was there to pick her up.
Bella was surprised, according to her mother Hannah David, and disappointed because she had been looking forward to the Christmas party that was about to start. But the man she thought of as her father, Michael Wine, who had been with her mother for nine years, surely had his reasons.
When she got to the school’s main foyer, however, she was greeted not by Wine, but by a man she barely knew – her biological father, William “Butch” Keahiolalo. Bella had seen him only once since 2012, when he agreed in court to give David sole custody of the girl.
A few weeks earlier, Bella and her mother had an encounter with Keahiolalo at a Kauai shopping mall that set in motion a series of events that culminated in what happened at the Big Island school that day. This included Keahiolalo allegedly approaching David, despite an order not to, and David’s arrest the following day for shoving and berating Keahiolalo at his workplace out of anger over the encounter.
At Bella’s school, Keahiolalo was accompanied by a contingent of police officers and workers from the state’s Child Welfare Services, which intervenes when it believes children are abused or neglected or at risk.
They told Bella that she was leaving immediately to live with Keahiolalo on Kauai. They took her cell phone, her mother says, and ushered her into Keahiolalo’s rental car to be driven to the Kona airport. Soon she was on a plane to Kauai.
Three weeks later, after stays with Keahiolalo and his family, as well as two foster families, Bella was reunited with her mother and Wine.
But the consequences are still unfolding – for Bella, who her mother says still suffers anxiety from her three-week ordeal; for Hannah David and Michael Wine and for the government officials who decided to take Bella from her classroom in an operation a judge later described as a “grab and go.”
A lawsuit filed by David provides a rare glimpse into the power wielded by government officials charged with protecting children in Hawaii – Child Welfare Services, often acting in concert with the police. These government actions are usually hidden from the public by the secrecy imposed by state law on Family Court proceedings.
Though CWS says it did not technically take custody of Bella that day in 2019, its participation in her de facto removal from her household conforms to a larger pattern. By law, the state may only take children from their parents with an order from a Family Court judge. The only exception is when CWS workers or police find that a child faces imminent danger – that the child is likely to be physically harmed without immediate action.
And yet, in 85% of cases in Hawaii, children were removed from their homes and placed in the custody of CWS without a judge’s order, according to figures for the fiscal year that ended last July. In effect, in the vast majority of cases, authorities are saying that even the short time it would take to get an order from a judge would leave the child vulnerable for too long.
That statistic illustrates the immense power of the state to sever the most fundamental of all bonds, between parents and children.
In the case of Bella, now 13, CWS did not have an order from a judge to remove the girl from David’s custody. In fact, CWS helped take the girl from her school on the strength of a temporary restraining order filed by Keahiolalo, barring David from having contact with her own daughter. The judge who approved the order apparently did not know about the 2012 stipulation giving full custody of Bella to David and never intended the restraining order to be a vehicle for severing her custody.
In many cases, CWS removals of children from their parents are clearly justified. In fact, CWS takes heat in high-profile cases in which critics say it failed to take action, with sometimes lethal consequences.
But Eric Seitz, David’s attorney, sees Bella’s case as a prime example of the agency’s hubris. “They think they can play God,” he said.
Steve Lane, a court-appointed special master in several child abuse cases, said that while social workers may be anxious to make sure children are safe, “that doesn’t excuse their failure to look at public records” — in this case, the 2012 order giving David full custody.
Across the U.S., child protection agencies often remove children from poor, nonwhite households that have little ability to fight back, said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Virginia. Horrific incidents of child abuse condition the public to assume the worst about the accused.
“The result is a supremely arrogant system with no real checks and balances, run by people who see themselves as saviors of innocent children – so the attitude becomes: ‘Who cares if a few rules are bent now and then?’” Wexler wrote in an email.
The Department of Human Services, the parent of CWS, declined to comment, citing the litigation. CWS likewise did not comment on the high percentage of children removed from their homes without a court order, except to say that only police have the authority to make that decision, in consultation with CWS.
Charles Foster, an attorney for a Kauai Police Department worker also named as a defendant, did not comment.
Keahiolalo’s attorney, Brandee Faria, also declined to comment because of the litigation.
Despite the ongoing lawsuit, the various parties don’t dispute the basic narrative.
It all began during the Thanksgiving holiday in 2019. David traveled with her daughter from their Waikoloa home on the Big Island to Kauai, where David grew up, to spend Thanksgiving with her mother and other relatives.
The day after Thanksgiving, David took Bella to a Kauai shopping center for a modeling job. David said she was standing there when someone came up behind her and clutched her arm. She turned to see Keahiolalo.
“You need to leave right now,” she recalls telling him. Their 2012 agreement, as well as giving her full legal and physical custody, included a provision that he would not contact her.
So when Keahiolalo approached her more than seven years later, David said she was upset and uncomfortable.
After taking some pictures, he apparently left. But a few hours later, when David stepped away for a minute to pick up something in Bella’s dressing room, she said Keahiolalo approached Bella as she stepped off the runway, introducing himself as “your dad.” He handed her a note with his name and phone number. An hour or so later, as the modeling job was ending, Keahiolalo appeared again with his two daughters, who told Bella that they were her sisters, David said.
“I’m scared, I’m mad, my daughter’s confused,” David recalls. “We felt really violated.”
She said she asked the Kauai Police Department to investigate Keahiolalo’s contact with her in light of the 2012 order. When nothing happened, she stewed about it all through a sleepless night. The next day, she was going to her mother’s house to pick something up. As it happened, the fire station where Keahiolalo worked was just across the street. David made a split-second decision.
“Instead of turning left, I turned right, which was the wrong choice,” she said.
What happened next was caught on video. David confronted Keahiolalo about the previous day’s encounter, peppering him with profanities as her daughter stood nearby, demanding that he apologize to the girl. And she shoved him repeatedly.
David said she is still weighed down by remorse for her actions that day. She had imagined that she would show strength and overcome her fear by confronting Keahiolalo. “It obviously did not turn out that way,” she said.
The police were called, and eventually David pleaded no contest to third-degree assault. She got a deferred sentence for the misdemeanor, and after she complied with the court’s conditions, the charge was recently dismissed.
After the arrest, she was released on bail and returned with Bella to the Big Island.
But the incident was far from over. According to the lawsuit, a few days after David assaulted him, Keahiolalo met with Gina Kaulukukui, the domestic violence coordinator for the Kauai Police Department. The lawsuit alleges that Kaulukukui helped Keahiolalo prepare and obtain a temporary restraining order against David that barred her from contacting him.
But the order also prohibited David from having contact with her own daughter. On the strength of this order, Seitz said, Keahiolalo and Kaulukukui contacted CWS and started making plans to remove Bella from her school.
But the two had failed to disclose to the judge a crucial fact: that the 2012 court order had given David full custody, that she’d had custody since then and that Bella was living with her at that very moment.
That omission has led to a court battle over whether Kaulukukui, in helping Keahiolalo, is entitled to “qualified immunity” – the idea that public servants cannot be held liable for damages in their official actions as long as they don’t violate rights that a reasonable person would have known about.
In March, U.S. District Court Judge J. Michael Seabright denied Kaulukukui’s motion to dismiss David’s complaint on the grounds that she was protected by qualified immunity. Kaulukukui appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The domestic violence coordinator argued that the law and circumstances were murky enough that she reasonably could have thought she was not violating David’s rights by helping to prepare the restraining order and was therefore entitled to qualified immunity. Her lawyer also stated that when the restraining order was filed, she was unaware of the 2012 custody agreement.
David countered that, even if the law allowed Keahiolalo to seek a restraining order, he and Kaulukukui would have been obligated to inform the court of the 2012 order giving her custody, not to decide on their own that he was entitled to, in effect, reverse it.
David’s lawsuit is on hold pending the 9th Circuit’s decision.
“After the appeal, we intend to go after those people as aggressively as possible,” Seitz said. He mentioned possible damages of $10 million – “whatever we can get to make an impact.”
Shortly after Bella was taken from her classroom and put on a plane to Kauai, Hannah David and Michael Wine were in their garage, unaware of what had happened. Two Hawaii Police Department employees appeared outside the screen door – one an officer in uniform, the other a detective in plainclothes.
David and Wine went inside and met them at the front door. The officers handed her a paper: the temporary restraining order barring her from having contact with her daughter.
David said she was trying to make sense of it. Would she have to move out of her house temporarily to comply with the order? Should she call her mother in Kauai and have her come stay with Bella until things got sorted out?
Then the uniformed officer said, “What I’m going to tell you next you’re not going to like very much.” Bella, he said, was on a plane to Kauai, where she would be moving in with her biological father.
“Then the world crashed down,” David said.
Two days earlier, a CWS worker and two police officers had visited, saying they were there to do a “welfare check,” apparently in response to the assault at the Kauai fire station that Bella witnessed — exposing a child to domestic violence can be grounds for the state’s intervention.
David recalls that, during their discussion at her dining room table, the CWS worker seemed confused about the 2012 order barring Keahiolalo from contacting her and the fact that she had been granted full custody.
“She seemed very much in the dark about everything,” David said.
In fact, when the police arrived two days later to announce that Bella had been sent to Kauai, the couple had been looking for the 2012 order in their garage so that they could make a copy for the CWS worker. But David said despite the earlier contact with CWS, she never imagined what was about to happen.
“No one had forewarned me of even the possibility she would be taken away,” she said.
In her lawsuit, David alleges that CWS workers on Kauai and the Big Island and Kaulukukui were in frequent contact with Keahiolalo by text, email, phone and in person to orchestrate the removal of Bella from her school. In court filings, Keahiolalo said that he was contacted by CWS to see if he could come to Kona to pick up Bella.
David soon connected with Seitz, and Bella’s removal from her family began to unravel. David says both she and her mother told CWS several times about the 2012 order granting her sole custody.
On New Year’s Eve, David appeared before a Family Court judge on Kauai, who granted her motion to undo Keahiolalo’s restraining order as it pertained to Bella. Judge Joe Moss said Keahiolalo lacked the authority to include her in the protective order.
Moss said that he found it “incredible and unbelievable that William Keahiolalo … who had no visitation for eight years, could obtain custody,” according to a 2020 Hawaii News Now report on the case. Moss told the parties to work out custody arrangements for Bella.
According to the lawsuit, CWS initially told David and attorney Seitz that it had no further interest in the case. But about an hour later, the lawsuit alleges, CWS changed course and said it would be filing a motion to gain custody of Bella at Family Court in Kona. CWS had deemed David’s home “unsafe,” apparently on the basis of her assault of Keahiolalo.
At first, CWS approved Keahiolalo as the provider of foster care for Bella. But several days later, CWS took Bella from Keahiolalo’s home and placed her in a different foster home on Kauai. She later went to another foster home on the Big Island, David said. Seitz said that CWS never got the approval of a judge to take custody of Bella.
After two days of Family Court hearings, a judge denied CWS’ petition for custody, and Bella was returned to David.
David says her daughter continues to suffer from the three-week ordeal.
“She gets very anxious when we go even to Target,” David said.
Mother and daughter have developed a code, using colors, for Bella to describe her state of mind. “Red” means that she feels like she’s being watched or followed. “Black” means she wants to leave right away.
Bella also insisted that her mother and Michael Wine get married, and that he officially adopt her. The adoption was finalized in November, David said.
Wexler, the Virginia advocate for child welfare reform, reviewed David’s complaint at the request of Civil Beat.
Watching her mother berate and shove her biological father was “certainly not good for the child,” Wexler wrote in an email.
But he argues that it was far outweighed by the damage caused when CWS and the other defendants came to Bella’s school and forced her to immediately get on a plane to the other end of the state to live with a man she barely knew.
“What CWS and the police are accused of doing constitutes an appalling act of emotional abuse of a child – and supposed emotional abuse was the only possible grounds for CWS intervening in the first place,” Wexler wrote.
This was compounded, he said, by CWS’ decision to place Bella in other foster homes rather than returning her to her mother.
And as Wexler and Seitz both point out, the whole episode occurred without the oversight of a judge, who could get a full picture from both sides before authorizing the removal of a child.
In this case, Wexler said, there clearly was no imminent threat of harm to the child – the one exception to getting a court order.
David, too, was struck by how CWS and the other defendants acted on their own, without judicial oversight, to take her child.
“It was a lot of individuals acting as though they were judge, jury and executioner,” she said.
This project is supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
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