Hawaii Should Curb ‘Grab And Go’ Mentality In Child Welfare Services - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Richard Wexler

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, a nonprofit based in Alexandria, Virginia. He is the author of “Wounded Innocents” (Prometheus Books, 1990, 1995).

Case No. 1: Six-year-old Ariel Sellers is taken from her home by Child Welfare Services. Relatives are ready to take Ariel in, but they say CWS ignores them. Instead Ariel is placed with strangers, Isaac and Lehua Kalua. Ultimately, they adopt her and change her name to Isabella.

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Now the Kaluas are charged with murdering Isabella. She allegedly died trapped in a dog cage with duct tape covering her mouth and nose. CWS still won’t place her siblings with relatives.

Case No. 2: Bella is in her fifth-grade classroom when suddenly she is told her father has come to her school to pick her up. But the man is not the man she considers her father — rather it’s a man she barely knows — indeed a court order bars any contact.

But that doesn’t stop CWS. In what a judge would call a “grab and go” CWS flies Bella to the other end of the state and leaves her with the father she barely knows.

Neither of these cases is a result of CWS not having enough money or enough personnel. Rather, they demonstrate how children are harmed when an agency that operates in near-absolute secrecy is given near-absolute power over some of the most powerless members of our society, families that are overwhelmingly poor and, in Hawaii, disproportionately mixed-race or Pacific Islander.

Yet over and over, “solutions” proposed by state lawmakers involve making this agency even more powerful by making it bigger. That’s like seeing an out-of-control fire and deciding the best answer is more gasoline.

So state Rep. Sylvia Luke practically demands that CWS ask for more money to hire 48 more people, apparently on the theory that one of them would have checked more carefully before grabbing Bella and going.

But as Civil Beat reports, 85% of the time, when CWS wants to tear a child from everyone s/he knows and loves, they don’t even  bother to ask a judge first — they just “grab and go.” It’s not because no one is checking, it’s because no one wants to check.

The theory, of course, is that CWS needs to grab-and-go because sometimes a child is in imminent danger.  Occasionally that’s true. But 77% of the children torn from their parents in Hawaii are taken because of allegations of “neglect.” Occasionally that can be extremely serious. More often, neglect is a euphemism for poverty.

Hawaii ‘An Outlier’

Hawaii already takes away children at a rate 35% above the national average, even when rates of child poverty are factored in. Making CWS 48 people bigger will only make the state even more of an outlier.

Even as she called for adding more positions to CWS, Luke and her colleagues turned down planning funds for a new jail. Why? Because, Luke explained, many of those jailed are there only because they can’t make bail.

“Basically, you’re putting people in jail because they’re poor,” she said. So at the very same meeting, Rep. Luke refused to spend more to jail people because they are poor while demanding that the state spend more to take away children — who often are taken because they are poor.

Hawaii’s grab-and-go approach makes all children less safe. In addition to the enormous emotional trauma inflicted on children needlessly taken, there is a high risk of abuse in foster care itself.

House legislature special session after Speaker Saiki gavels into floor session then immediately recessed until 230pm.
Rather than fund more positions for CWS, the Legislature should put money into concrete help to ameliorate the worst aspects of poverty — things like child care subsidies and housing assistance. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Of course, most foster parents do not wind up accused of murder like the Kaluas. But study after study finds abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes, and the rate in group homes and institutions is even worse.

But you can’t fix that by doing something else some lawmakers have proposed: making foster parents who adopt second-class parents, subject to government scrutiny even after an adoption is finalized. Then they are simply foster parents by another name.

Instead, Hawaii needs to stop confusing poverty with neglect, and wring the grab-and-go mentality out of CWS. That will give workers more time to scrutinize potential foster parents before children are placed.

CWS needs to be understood for what it is: a police force.

And, with fewer children taken, CWS won’t have to lower standards for foster parents or be tempted to ignore signs of abuse in foster homes. It also will free up time for workers to investigate every case with more care, so they are more likely to find the few children in real danger.

Lawmakers should take the money earmarked for more CWS personnel and put it into concrete help to ameliorate the worst aspects of poverty — things like child care subsidies and housing assistance.

Then provide families with high-quality defense counsel, so they can fight for whatever they need to keep their children safe. Where this has been tried, time in foster care has gone down dramatically, with no compromise in safety.

Most important, CWS needs to be understood for what it is: a police force. They are the family police, and like any other police force, they must be accountable for how they use their power.

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About the Author

Richard Wexler

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, a nonprofit based in Alexandria, Virginia. He is the author of “Wounded Innocents” (Prometheus Books, 1990, 1995).

Latest Comments (0)

I have never heard a more blatant hatchet job than this one. Too many children have not been removed from their homes that should have. The CWS is not perfect but sorry, erring on the side of caution makes far more sense than the alternative "Oops, should have removed that child who is now dead" ! The caseload of CWS workers is far too large and maybe if it was lessened by being spread amongst more workers through more hiring, then perhaps they could have more time for more frequent home visits. More frequent home visits might indeed keep more kids with their biological families since there would be constant follow-up.

TheAdvocate · 1 year ago

HAwaii legislature, please heed Richard Wexler. As director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, he knows whereof he speaks. I am a retired child and family therapist. We must do all we can to keep families together by implementing Family FirstPrevention and Services. Struggling families need resources, support services, training and counseling through evidence based programs such as Multisystemic Family Therapy and others. In urgent or extreme cases, we must make every effort to place an endangered child with family or friends known to the child, and failing that, with a trained therapeutic foster family. Too often we subject children to "rescue" from the frying pan only to be tossed into a fire.

Nonna · 1 year ago

When a child/children are taken from parents and adopted to strangers, the parents are then billed for child support. Ransom with out delivery!

Kathleen · 1 year ago

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