It has been seven months since 6-year-old Isabella Kalua was reported missing from her Waimanalo home, and five months after her adoptive parents were indicted for her murder, and state lawmakers say they still haven’t seen a clear plan or even a stopgap proposal for repairing Hawaii’s struggling child welfare system.

Isabella’s disappearance triggered a community uproar, but the state Department of Human Services did not request a significant budget increase for the Child Welfare Services Division this year, nor did it announce plans to seek changes to state laws, rules or policies to help the agency do its job more effectively.

The department has never explained to the public or the Legislature what went wrong in the Kalua case — DHS says it cannot discuss the matter, citing confidentiality requirements — and that muted response has left Hawaii lawmakers to cobble together their own proposals this year to try to improve the system.

The department’s reticence may turn out to be a strategic mistake. The state this year has an enormous budget surplus of $2 billion or more, making this an ideal time to ask for money to expand social programs, hire staff or fund contracts to beef up the system. If Hawaii’s roller-coaster economy abruptly lands in another recession, that will all change.

Lawmakers are now less than two weeks away from their scheduled adjournment for the year, and House Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke said Tuesday she still doesn’t have a good fix on where the agency wants to go “or the recognition that there’s a problem and they need to do something about it.”

“You would think this is an opportunity for them to say ‘You know what? Money is not the issue right now, so what do we need to do to help this agency?’ And that’s not happening,” she said.

Isaac and Lehua Kalua
Isaac and Lehua Kalua were indicted for second-degree murder in connection with the death of their adoptive daughter Isabella. HPD

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, but Isabella’s body has not been found.

Isabella’s case focused more attention on Hawaii’s child welfare system than any other event since Peter “Peter Boy” Kema Jr. disappeared in 1997, and lawmakers pressed DHS this year to identify what needs to be done. Peter Boy’s case also triggered an outcry and public debate around child welfare issues.

But child welfare officials are being surprisingly cautious this year. In fact, DHS staff acknowledged during a January budget hearing that lawmakers might well be wondering why the department was asking for so little additional staffing or other new resources for Child Welfare Services.

“The reason we’re not asking for additional funding for additional positions at this time is because we need the infrastructure first, we need the training resources to train any new workers, and we just need time to build the workforce,” said Daisy Hartsfield, administrator of the DHS Social Services Division.

However, Hartsfield said at the same hearing that increased staffing has helped in the past. She told lawmakers that a special initiative in 2018 to add a handful of social worker positions in East Hawaii to try to reduce caseloads for the workers in that CWS office produced a “positive result.”

But she said the department did not seek more positions for other CWS offices this year because “we believe that the positions that we do have are able to address the needs, and it’s not so much the number of positions, more so than the issue of when a position does become vacant, or when someone leaves.”

Hartsfield said the child welfare branch had 301 workers and 87 vacancies as of January, for a vacancy rate of more than 20%. A number of experienced staffers retired during the pandemic, and some died, she said.

Coping with allegations of child abuse and neglect is extremely difficult work, and social workers are “daily dealing with people who are in states of crisis, trauma and certain states of victimization,” said Cathy Betts, director of the state Department of Human Services.

“I know that Child Welfare Services branch, their workers have one of the most difficult jobs in the state,” Betts said. “Even pre-pandemic, we’d have workers who would need to scale fences in homeless encampments to look for youths who had been either taken from foster care or had absconded and run away, so we definitely understand the dangerous conditions that our staff work in, and try to be as mindful as possible to ensure their safety and wellbeing.”

Department of Human Services Director Cathy Betts told the House Finance Committee earlier this year that Child Welfare Services workers have some of the most difficult jobs in the state, which helps to explain the 20% vacancy rate in CWS positions. Screenshot/2021

But large numbers of vacancies require that the remaining staff manage heavier caseloads, which can affect services to children and families.

Hartsfield told the Finance Committee that “our focus right now is recruitment and strengthening the current workforce, so we have trainings in place that we hope to provide, we have services, we’re looking at our contracts, how we can provide additional or enhancement services to better serve our community.”

Luke observed during that January hearing that state law allows for pay differentials that might be used to spend more to retain highly trained CWS workers. But Hartsfield said the department wouldn’t be asking for money to fund pay differentials this year, either.

“We want to do it correctly, and we just don’t want to be reactive, so we’re being proactive by doing research so that when we do have that ask, which I anticipate will be next year, that we’ll have a strong plan in place to make sure that it is implemented effectively,” she said.

Hartsfield also told lawmakers that exit interviews showed that compensation was “not a reason” why workers were leaving. She said many CWS workers had moved into vacant positions in adult protective services, which has a similar job classification, but is a much less stressful job.

Left unspoken in that brief exchange was that retaining CWS social workers has been a problem for many years. The department itself identified staff retention as a “critical issue” in hearings in 2018 following the death of Shaelynn Lehano-Stone, a 9-year-old who had died of starvation in Hilo two years before.

State Rep. Lisa Marten, who represents Waimanalo, said residents in her district were appalled at the reports of abuse in the Kalua case, and wanted something positive done to improve the system. DHS responded to Marten’s overtures by explaining that the state needs to recruit more foster parents, and needs more mental health services, she said.

“None of their responses were looking inward at themselves,” Marten said.

Marten then became the lead introducer for House Bill 2424, which in its original version would have given DHS authority to monitor and investigate adoptive parents as deemed necessary by the department if those parents accept support payments from the state. It also proposed annual or semi-annual visits to adoptive homes to check on the children.

Currently CWS 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 to monitor adoptive families.

During a hearing on that bill, the state attorney general warned the proposal in the bill could be challenged in court as unconstitutional, and DHS explained that adoptive families “already go through an extensive vetting process.” The department also cautioned that “additional interventions” by the state might make families more reluctant to adopt.

House Health, Human Services and Homelessness Committee Chairman Ryan Yamane then modified the bill to apply extra CWS supervision only to adoptive or guardianship families “against whom a complaint has been lodged with the department at any time.” But the attorney general is still concerned that proposal might also be unconstitutional.

Hawaii State Capitol.
State lawmakers are grappling with how to reform the child welfare system, and have advanced proposals to increase training, pay and staffing. They have also proposed a performance audit. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Meanwhile, Luke had “serious discussions” with CWS about what the department needs to do, and announced in early March that the House had proposed adding nearly $3 million to the state budget to provide 48 new positions for the agency. Additional training and computer upgrades would also be financed with that money.

But Luke said she is uncertain how much that will help. “Is what we’re doing really going to lead to results? That’s what we want to know,” Luke said. “Or, are they just agreeing to us pressing them to ask for more positions?”

The state Senate is trying a different approach. Senate Human Services Chairwoman Joy San Buenaventura said the Senate is focused on pay differentials to encourage CWS social workers to stay put, and is proposing to add $1.2 million to the budget to provide salary differentials for 250 CWS social workers for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

However, San Buenaventura said the pay differential needs to comply with the state collective bargaining law and plans to work on that between this session and next. Reclassification of some CWS positions to higher pay grades might be another way to address the same issue, she said.

“To me, I think adding 48 more positions doesn’t help if you have a 20% vacancy rate to begin with, because how are you going to fill the 48 positions?” she said. “What you need to do is fill them and retain them, because that’s really the only way you could have the services for the kids.”

“There really needs to be a deep dive and not just the patchwork of what these bills are doing as to how we can fill and retain,” San Buenaventura said.

She is also pushing Senate Bill 2857, which would offer a cash benefit of $50 to encourage families that receive Medicaid benefits to take their children to the doctor for annual well-child checkups. The hope is those checkups will catch problems earlier and help ensure the well-being of more children.

San Buenaventura has also advanced Senate Concurrent Resolution 102, which asks the state auditor to do a performance audit of CWS.

Update: Civil Beat has updated this story to include a response received after the story was published from the state Department of Human Services.

The Department of Human Services said in a written response to questions that “we think the budget will support several initiatives proposed this session that will address the needs of families and DHS staff.”

The department prefers that money to increase staff, training and to pursue other initiatives be placed in the state budget because that makes it more likely the funding will continue in future years, according to the statement.

Despite the flurry of activity and proposals, lawmakers admit they are unsure if the bills they are pushing this year will drive significant improvements in the system.

“They should have done an internal analysis on some of the barriers and struggles on providing the result of protecting kids, and how do we get there,” Luke said. “Giving them money and positions is one thing, but I think there’s still a lack of wanting to aggressively address the situation.”

As frustrated as she is with the way things played out this year, Marten credits the people in the CWS system for working to protect Hawaii’s children under extremely difficult conditions.

“I think they have good intent, but it’s just not working out in terms of thinking how they can make it better.” she said. “I’m really hoping that additional resources coupled with an audit, so that they can best use those resources, will help.”

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