The disappearance of Isabella Kalua and concerns about Hawaii’s struggling child welfare system spurred state lawmakers to push forward Friday with the most ambitious aid package for the system in decades, including millions of dollars in new funding to better monitor and help children who are in foster care or are pending adoption.

A House and Senate conference committee gave preliminary approval Friday to House Bill 2424, which includes $8 million to expand recruitment and training of foster parents and Child Welfare Services social workers, and also boost pay for experienced CWS workers.

“We want to make sure that we provide the department with the resources, as well as make sure that our keiki who are in this process of foster care and adoptive care get the needed and required monitoring to ensure their safety,” said House Health, Human Services and Homelessness Committee Chairman Ryan Yamane.

Lawmakers scrambled to meet a deadline to position dozens of bills for final votes next week, including putting finishing touches on a measure to reorganize state corrections and law enforcement functions. The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn for the year on Thursday.

State lawmakers at the Capitol scrambled Friday to meet a deadline to position dozens of bills for final votes next week. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Senate Human Services Chairwoman Joy San Buenaventura described the child welfare bill as “huge,” and said it includes $800,000 to allow the Department of Human Services to contract for additional services to recruit, train and support foster families, and also to monitor those families. Another $1 million would be used to upgrade the CWS computer systems.

The bill also includes $1.2 million to provide a pay differential to try to retain experienced CWS social workers. Those workers have extremely stressful and potentially dangerous jobs, and turnover has been such a chronic problem that CWS now has a vacancy rate of about 20%.

Yamane said the bill also includes provisions to require CWS to make annual checks on adoptive families if those families accept support payments from the state, and if they have ever had a complaint lodged against them with the department.

That language grows out of concerns about the Kalua case, which shocked Waimanalo residents and many others in Hawaii. Six-year-old Isabella, whose birth name was Ariel Sellers, was reported missing from the Waimanalo home of her adoptive parents on Sept. 13.

Her disappearance triggered a days-long search, but she was never found. Court records in Isabella’s case 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.

Isabella Kalua
Isabella Kalua’s body has still not been found. HPD

The case drew attention to the fact that CWS currently ends its supervision of adoptive families once the adoptions are complete. The agency has the power to investigate allegations of abuse in adoptive families — as it can with any family —  but the state has no ongoing, special authority now to monitor adoptive families.

During a hearing earlier this year the state attorney general raised concerns that the proposal to monitor adoptive families could be challenged in court as unconstitutional, but Yamane said he has addressed that issue in the final draft of the bill.

The measure also provides $250,000 to support the work of a “Malama Ohana” working group that is tasked with providing a report to lawmakers before the 2024 session of the Legislature “so that we know whether or not we are on the right track in helping CWS social worker and resource caregivers in the recruitment, training and services.”

“We hope that there will not be any fatalities, ever,” San Buenaventura said.

New Law Enforcement Department

Lawmakers also approved a bill to create a new statewide police agency.

House Bill 2171 would split the Department of Public Safety in two, creating one department to handle the state’s correctional system and another new state Department of Law Enforcement to deal with criminal activity and investigations.

Officers from the state sheriffs division, narcotics division, attorney general investigators and Department of Transportation officers would all come under the new law enforcement department.

A draft of HB 2171 approved by a conference committee Friday delays the implementation of the department until 2024. The new draft also removes much of the funding originally in the bill.

The original draft of the bill, proposed by Gov. David Ige’s administration, asked for more than $4 million for new staff positions. Lawmakers are instead giving the new department $900,000 to cover salaries for executive positions that would be responsible for implementing the new department.

Lawmakers also advanced another batch of bills to try to reduce recidivism among inmates who are released from Hawaii’s prisons and jails.

House Bill 2309 would provide $800,000 to the Department of Health for a program to assess and treat former inmates’ behavioral, mental health and substance abuse issues, and provide another $200,000 to the Hawaii Paroling Authority to provide housing assistance to inmates who are exiting the correctional system.

The same measure would also give $100,000 to the correctional system to purchase machines to generate identification cards for outgoing prisoners.

Lawmakers in 2017 mandated that the Department of Public Safety provide IDs to every inmate who leaves the system because identification makes it far easier for former prisoners to apply for work or seek government aid programs.

Another bill agreed to Friday would provide $420,000 to launch a pilot visitation and family resource center at Waiawa Correctional Facility. House Bill 1741 is intended to encourage family visitation with inmates and “strengthen and reunify families” with a focus on the the well-being of the children of prisoners.

Lawmakers on Thursday gave preliminary approval to measures that mandated and funded a furlough program for women inmates and women who were recently released, and established a three-year women’s court pilot program in Oahu Circuit Court.

Lease Extensions

House lawmakers positioned a bill for a final vote next week that would allow the Department of Agriculture to extend leases in state agricultural parks by an additional 30 years if the tenants have less than 15 years remaining on their current leases.

House Bill 1705 would apply only to ag parks on islands with populations of less than 500,000 residents — meaning the lease extensions would only be allowed on the neighbor islands — and only to leases that are 25 acres or less.

The Hawaii Department of Agriculture has raised concerns about the measure, with board Chairwoman Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser pointing out the state must “consider the public policy against allowing individual private interests to exclusively occupy, use and benefit from public lands for durations exceeding statutory limits or indefinitely.”

Hawaii has a pressing need to increase the number of local farmers if the state is to meet its food sustainability goals, she said, and the state ought to “provide other members of the public a fair and equal opportunity” to seek leases of the publicly owned ag park lands.

The measure is backed by the Hawaii Farm Bureau and a number of Big Island farmers who contend they must have the assurance of long-term leases to invest in infrastructure on the state ag park lands.

“It is important for nurserymen and women to have the peace of mind that is associated with a renewal of their lease, so that they may continue to farm,” said Eric Tanouye, president of the Hawaii Floriculture and Nursery Association. “We believe the Department of Agriculture has the relevant knowledge to understand what leases for small farms should be extended.”

But Shimabukuro-Geiser pointed out in written testimony that “there is nothing preventing the current lessee from applying for a new lease upon expiration of the current one.”

Cesspools And Geothermal

Lawmakers gave tentative approval to House Bill 2195, which would provide $5 million to establish a new grant program to help lower-income homeowners to cope with failing cesspools. The grants could be used to either convert cesspools to septic systems, or connect homes to sewer systems.

Hawaii has some 88,000 cesspools that have been blamed for polluting groundwater and ocean resources, and the Legislature in 2017 mandated that all homes be connected to sewer systems or upgraded to acceptable wastewater systems by 2050. However, conversion can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and progress has been slow.

Under the new grant program, households with incomes below 140% of the area median income could qualify for grants of up to $20,000 to make the conversions, said House Energy & Environmental Protection Chairwoman Nicole Lowen. The pilot program for converting cesspools would end in 2028, she said.

A House-Senate conference committee also approved Senate Bill 3195, which would provide $500,000 in start-up funding for identification and exploration of geothermal resources on Hawaiian Home Lands that might one day be used to produce electricity.

That bill is backed by both the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and the Hawaii State Energy Office, which said geothermal energy can play a “significant role” in the state’s goal of achieving 100% renewable energy generation, and also provide a long-term revenue stream for DHHL.

All of the measures approved in conference committee on Thursday and Friday now go to the full House and Senate for final floor votes next week.

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