A proposed $8.3 billion state budget for next year would beef up staffing and funding for the struggling state Child Welfare Services agency in the wake of an alleged murder of a 6-year-old girl on Oahu last year.

The House Finance Committee unveiled plans on Thursday that would increase the CWS budget by $2.95 million and add 48 new positions to the agency, which is tasked with responding to and intervening in cases of alleged child abuse and neglect.

The child welfare agency came under renewed scrutiny last year amid the uproar surrounding the disappearance of Isabella “Ariel” Kalua. Court records allege the child’s adoptive parents kept her in a dog cage, put duct tape over her mouth and refused to feed her.

Isaac and Lehua Kalua have been charged with second-degree murder in her death, but Isabella’s body has not been found.

Capitol building.
The proposed new draft of the state budget that was unveiled at the Capitol Thursday would add funding for Child Welfare Services, but would delete $15 million that Gov. David Ige’s administration requested to plan a new jail. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Lawmakers questioned child welfare staff at the outset of this year’s legislative session about what additional resources they might need to better handle the agency’s caseload, but the Department of Human Services did not initially ask for significant new funding or staffing for the CWS branch.

However, “with the continuous number of cases that come out where there are questions about how we’re ensuring the safety of these kids under the jurisdiction of the state, we had serious discussions with DHS Child Welfare Services about whether it’s increased training, or expansion, or support that they need to ensure the safety of these kids,” said House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke.

Later in the session, officials from the agency finally told lawmakers they do believe the agency is understaffed and needs to upgrade its computer system, and made a new request for help that included 48 new positions.

The proposed new budget that was approved by the Finance Committee Thursday would provide funding for those positions, which include additional social workers, service aids, clerical staff and information technology staff.

Luke said the agency’s position on the staffing issue seemed to shift after coverage in Civil Beat of a lawsuit over CWS involvement in another case in which a Big Island fifth grader was removed from school and flown to Kauai to be with her biological father.

The biological father did not have custody of the girl, and Luke said checking who has custody in such a case is a basic responsibility of CWS.

“At the end of the day, the fact that they were willing to admit that, OK, they need 48 positions is great, but that tells you how significant the shortfall was,” she said. “These are 48 people who could have been helping to ensure the safety of kids.”

In another significant change in the proposed House budget, lawmakers deleted a request by the Department of Public Safety for $15 million in planning money for a new jail in Halawa. The state already has spent $10 million planning that new jail, which is supposed to replace the aging and deteriorating Oahu Community Correctional Center.

Finance Committee Vice Chairman Kyle Yamashita, who oversees construction spending for the House, said the area where corrections officials plan to put the new jail does not have adequate sewer capacity for such a large facility. Current plans call for space for about 1,044 jail inmates, and another 288 beds for prisoners who are approaching their release dates.

Luke said she has other concerns about the planning for a new jail. “We don’t think it’s timely yet,” she said.

She estimated that half of the people in OCCC are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime. They are being held there because they cannot afford to post bail, she said.

“If we do significant bail reform — and there is a bail reform bill going through this year — we anticipate a lot of these pretrial detainees will not be in jail,” Luke said.

“Basically, you’re putting people in jail because they’re poor,” she said. “We’re actually housing indigent individuals who have not been convicted, and because of that we need to right size the prison population before they commit to a prison, and that’s been my criticism, and we’re far from that.”

OCCC is the largest jail in the state, and a report in 2017 concluded that replacing it with a new facility could cost anywhere from $433 million to $673 million, depending on the design that is finally selected.

The proposed draft of the state budget now goes to the full House for a vote, then to the state Senate for further consideration.

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