For six years, Deborah Goodwin did everything she could think of to try to foster and then adopt her orphaned grandson. She went before the Family Court on the Big Island, and when that didn’t work, appealed to the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court. In the meantime, she filed a lawsuit against the state Department of Human Services in Circuit Court.

Three years ago, she contacted Civil Beat, which did a story about her case. She told a court-appointed custody evaluator she wanted to write a book about her experience. She said that if she were not able to adopt her grandson, she planned to “go all Erin Brockovich” to expose what she saw as corruption in Hawaii’s foster care and adoption system. Brockovich famously took on a California utility company over groundwater pollution.

Her efforts fell short. On New Year’s Eve in 2019, while she was with her grandson at their favorite surfing spot on the Big Island, her attorney called to say that a Family Court judge had approved the boy’s adoption by a non-relative couple who had fostered him.

She recalls looking out at the surf, where she had taught her grandson to boogie board, as she got the news. They kept surfing – she wanted to contain herself in front of her grandson. But “my whole world kind of changed color that day,” she said.

J.J. at the beach on the day his grandmother found out he'd been adopted by his foster family.
Goodwin’s grandson at their favorite surf spot on the day she found out he’d been adopted by his foster family. Courtesy: Deborah Goodwin

In April, the Supreme Court declined to hear her appeal.

Her vocal advocacy for her cause was not just futile – it turned out to be one of the primary reasons to deny giving her custody, according to then-Family Court Judge Mahilani Hiatt and others involved in the case, such as the state’s Department of Human Services.

Hiatt cited other factors, such as Goodwin failing to attend most of her grandson’s soccer games, which she denies. Also, Goodwin, more than three years into the case, appeared at the foster family’s house uninvited and confronted the foster mother with antagonistic questions within earshot of her grandson, the judge wrote.

Hiatt found that her actions, including going public and promising to continue doing so, “appear to confirm that she is prone to put her own needs in front of” her grandson’s.

Although Hiatt and others involved in the case declined to talk to Civil Beat, Family Court documents shared by Goodwin, as well as other court and public records, provide a rare glimpse into a system that is usually strictly confidential.

Goodwin says that she had no choice but to go public. She had lost faith in the fairness of the process.

DHS repeatedly rejected Goodwin as a caregiver for her grandson after her daughter died in a car crash in 2016 for what turned out to be dubious reasons.

The state said she had earlier asked that her grandson be removed from her home because she couldn’t line up child care. In fact, she says, she was trying to protect him from her daughter, who struggled with bipolar disorder and whose life was quickly unraveling.

“It’s ludicrous that the child was ever placed anywhere other than with his grandmother.” — Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform

After the daughter died, DHS said it didn’t want the grandson living in a house of mourning.

Later, the state cited disparaging testimony from Goodwin’s ex-husband that she had cut him out of their daughter’s life. But the ex-husband, in a later deposition, said that never happened.

And the longer the boy stayed with non-relative foster parents, the stronger the case that it was in his best interests not to disrupt this attachment.

The case illustrates the immense power of state social workers, rightly or wrongly, to make decisions early on that can make the outcome almost inevitable.

“The child protective workers have so much power initially, they will set the tone for how the rest of the case will go in the first few months,” said Kai Lawrence, who handled Goodwin’s appeal. This immense power can become a problem, he said, when it’s in the hands of “really jaded social workers who think they know everything.”

Family Court judges like Hiatt also wield immense power, with wide latitude in deciding what’s in the best interest of a child. And, despite Hawaii’s supposed preference for placing children with blood relatives, judges have no legal requirement to consider it as a factor.

And then there’s the question of the secrecy of Family Court proceedings, which Goodwin breached by talking to Civil Beat and promising to write a book.

“I could see a reasonable person saying that’s not in the child’s best interests,” said Eugene Volokh, a professor of First Amendment law at the UCLA School of Law who reviewed the case at the request of Civil Beat. Children could Google their names and be confronted with painful facts. Classmates could do the same and tease them.

While adults can decide for themselves whether to go public, children cannot, he said.

“The grandmother essentially denied the grandson that decision,” Volokh said.

But to Goodwin and others, the court’s decision was simply punishment for standing up to a system she believed was wrongly separating her from the boy.

“It’s a closed club,” Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Alexandria, Virginia, wrote in an email after also reviewing the case. “Families are expected to say ‘how high’ when DHS and courts say ‘jump.’ If they do anything else they are at significant risk of being on the receiving end of the system’s wrath and its vengeance.

“The blows always are felt most by the children – in this case, a little boy who lost his mother and now will be separated forever from his grandmother as well.”

Indeed, though Hiatt opined that Goodwin, if she had adopted her grandson, would have cut off contact with the foster parents and others, it is Goodwin who has now gone a year without seeing him – and then only for a couple of hours.

A Life Gone Awry And Its Aftermath

Goodwin raised her daughter, Sarah, as a single mother, mostly in Hawaii. She worked at nonprofit and educational organizations, most recently as executive director of the Kahilu Theatre in Kamuela. In 2013, she was a finalist for Hawaii Business Magazine’s “Woman of the Year” in the nonprofit category.

Goodwin, then the executive director of the Kahilu Theatre. hosting a sponsorship event for the community in 2019.
Goodwin, then the executive director of the Kahilu Theatre, hosting a sponsorship event for the community in 2019. Courtesy: Deb Goodwin

She remembers her daughter Sarah as adventurous and creative, a vocalist in school choirs and a horsewoman. But at the age of 16, she began to show signs of bipolar disorder. She started using drugs and became dependent on alcohol.

Because of her various problems, Sarah lost custody of a daughter a year before the 2013 birth of her son, whom Goodwin refers to as J.J. The boy is now 8.

Goodwin says she was a source of stability for her daughter and grandson, who both lived with her at various times. She recalls taking J.J. on walks on trails near her house with her dogs, and exploring tidal pools along the Kona coast.

But things were not always harmonious. In 2016, Sarah’s mental illness increasingly disrupted her life. In early March 2016, Goodwin tried to prevent her from driving drunk, and her daughter hit her.

Two weeks later, Sarah was arrested in Kona. She had her son with her at the time, so Goodwin drove to Kona during a wildfire to bring J.J. home. Sarah had been in a DHS voluntary program but after Goodwin contacted state officials the next day to say she had custody of her grandson, DHS elevated the case.

What happened over the next several days turned out to be crucial to Goodwin’s later efforts.

On March 28, 2016, Goodwin got a temporary restraining order against her daughter. But Sarah had been released from jail and showed up at her house, demanding her son, threatening to burn down her house and poison her dogs if she didn’t get him.

Goodwin called the police, who prevented Sarah from driving away with her son because she didn’t have a car seat or a driver’s license. Later that night, a DHS worker assessed Goodwin’s home and determined it was a safe place for J.J. In the ensuing days, Sarah continued leaving threatening voicemails.

And here’s where the accounts vary.

Goodwin says that the DHS worker told her that temporarily placing J.J. with non-relative foster parents would protect him from Sarah.

DHS, on the other hand, maintained throughout the later court proceedings that Goodwin, in the midst of the crisis with her daughter, told the DHS worker that J.J. needed to be placed elsewhere because she worked 60-hour weeks and had not lined up child care. DHS pointed to her supposed inability to care for J.J. as its reason for not placing him with her again.

More than three years later, Hiatt cited the DHS version of events in her decision to allow the foster parents to adopt J.J.

The DHS worker did not recall any discussion “of Sarah’s threats or Goodwin’s fear that Sarah would come and harm James, or herself.”

Instead, “it was only because of Goodwin’s difficulties in obtaining day care.”

Goodwin agrees that she did ask about child care – but says that was incidental to the much more pressing matter of her daughter’s threats. She said in court documents that a DHS worker later shredded the notes from the telephone call, contrary to the department’s policy.

After J.J. was placed with the foster parents who would eventually adopt him, Goodwin wrote a letter, addressed to “Dear Kona Family,” telling them about her grandson.

“He loves to swing,” she wrote. “He plays my keyboards and entertains himself outside with the hose and feeding birds. He runs a lot and often on his tippy toes. He has good balance and is fearless. He is very kind to animals … Please call me so I know he is good. I am here.”

A House of Mourning

In May, DHS returned J.J. to his mother. Because of what a DHS worker later called “a procedural error,” DHS did not perform its normal supervision of Sarah and her son.

In August, Sarah abandoned J.J. at a homeless shelter. He was placed again with the same foster family, who reported that he had lost weight, had a “distant stare” and slept for two days straight. A DHS worker later told the court that J.J., after his time with his mother, was lucky to be alive.

Goodwin’s daughter Sarah with her two children shortly before her death in a car accident in 2016 Courtesy of Deborah Goodwin

The following month, Sarah died in a car accident when she crossed the centerline on a North Kona highway and collided head-on with another vehicle.

J.J. stayed with Goodwin for three nights. But then DHS returned him to the foster parents because, as Hiatt later put it in her decision, “Goodwin’s house was one of mourning.”

Goodwin recalls friends and family gathering at her house after her daughter’s death, cooking meals and playing music. She doesn’t see how that was bad for J.J.

“He was mourning, too,” Goodwin said. “He lost his mother. We weren’t beating our chests, but we were all very sad. It was a real emotion that he had as well.”

In January 2017, a state consultant recommended Goodwin as a foster parent for J.J. But DHS did not agree. The state cited the earlier “unsuccessful” placement with her and, even though it was four months after Sarah’s death, the possible detrimental effects of being in a “household that was grieving and mourning,” as Hiatt later described it. There was also the fact that the boy had been moved several times, and Goodwin’s ex-husband – as well as J.J.’s biological father in Texas, who had never known him – were possible placements as well.

“It’s ludicrous that the child was ever placed anywhere other than with his grandmother,” said Wexler, the child protection reform advocate.

If the same series of events had occurred absent Sarah’s involvement with DHS, he asked, “Would anyone so much as question this? Why then should grandma in this case ever have been forced to jump through hoops and compete against total strangers with some other total stranger awarding the child like a prize on a game show? It’s obscene.”

Even if Goodwin’s reason for placing J.J. elsewhere was the lack of child care, he said, “the correct response would have been: ‘We’ll get you child care.’”

A Discrepancy Over Testimony

Another turning point in the case came in early 2018, when DHS recommended a permanent home for J.J. The agency said it had rejected Goodwin – again because of the earlier “unsuccessful” placement but also in large part because of its concerns about her ability “to promote family connections” for J.J.

DHS said that Goodwin’s ex-husband, Marshall Thurber, had told officials that Goodwin had “severed” his relationship with his daughter Sarah. In a custody case between the two, Goodwin “lied in the custody proceedings” and didn’t let him see Sarah “for the remainder of her minority,” according to DHS’s account of what Thurber said.

In addition, after Sarah died, Goodwin allegedly refused to share information with Thurber about J.J.’s whereabouts and condition, forcing him to hire a private detective to get information.

Yet, in a deposition in May 2019, despite supporting J.J.’s placement with the foster family, Thurber told a much different story.

In the deposition, Goodwin’s attorney read Thurber a statement that DHS had submitted to the court alleging that Goodwin had prevented him from taking part in his daughter’s life.

“Is this a true statement?” the lawyer asked.

“No,” Thurber replied. “Debbie never did that.”

Asked about Goodwin allegedly lying in the custody proceedings, Thurber replied, “I have no idea what they’re talking about.”

In fact, he said, there was no such hearing. “That doesn’t make any sense,” he said, “because I know – at least I never went to any custody proceeding.”

In contrast to what DHS had said, Thurber and Sarah visited each other and Goodwin “encouraged Marshall to maintain a close relationship with Sarah,” according to one of her pleadings.

In his deposition, asked about the private detective he supposedly had to engage to find out about his grandson, Thurber replied, “No, I’ve never hired anybody. I have no canceled checks. I don’t have any report.”

The DHS social worker in the middle of these factual disputes was Kerry Perez, who has since left the department. Goodwin alleged that Perez misrepresented both the reasons for asking that J.J. be placed elsewhere when her daughter was threatening her, and the statements supposedly made by her ex-husband. Perez, who now lives in California, did not respond to a message left with a relative.

Evidence Of Ill Will?

The judge noted in her decision that Perez said she bore no ill will toward Goodwin, although Perez “found her interactions with Goodwin to be frustrating” and eventually asked a supervisor to take over communicating with her.

But in texts with the guardian ad litem, the person appointed by the court to represent the interests of the child, Perez referred to Goodwin as a “fruitcake,” according to one court filing.

In another exchange in August, 2017 after Goodwin had been approved as a foster parent for J.J. but before DHS’s placement recommendation, the GAL asked, “What do you think about requesting that Deb Goodwin get a psych eval?”

Deb Goodwin boogie boarding with J.J.
Goodwin says she taught J.J. to boogie board at Pine Trees surf break, where she got the news he’d been adopted by his foster family. Courtesy: Deborah Goodwin

Perez replied, “My worry is if her eval says nothing wrong (She’s rather convincing at first). Then she has ammunition.” Such a move might also give her grounds for becoming a party to the Family Court case. “That’s my thought – keep her distant,” Perez wrote.

Perez texted that if the Texas man did not turn out to be J.J.’s biological father, she wanted to terminate Sarah’s parental rights, which had to be done officially even though she was dead, and get the adoption by the foster family approved in the same day “so Deb can but (sic) out. She has been a nightmare this month.”

The custody evaluator later recommended that J.J. be adopted by the foster couple. But he nonetheless said that DHS had not treated Goodwin fairly.

He testified that he was concerned that “Goodwin has been seen in an unrealistically negative light by DHS,” according to one of Goodwin’s pleadings in the adoption case.

Specifically, he identified “animus” on the part of Perez and said that if he’d been treated as Goodwin had, he’d be “livid” and “loaded for bear,” according to the pleading.

The custody evaluator’s recommendation that J.J. be adopted by the foster family was based in part on the fact that he’d been there so long – in other words, the state’s refusal to place him with Goodwin became a reason to not let Goodwin adopt him. It’s a pattern that occurs in cases in which the state removes children from their parents — what happens if the case drags on so long that children become bonded to the foster family?

If J.J. never saw the foster parents again, “it would be a stunning loss which would more likely than not create life-long issues,” according to Hiatt’s summary of the custody evaluator’s findings.

Goodwin’s visits with J.J. had also been cut back, so she had been spending less time with him. The foster parents had complained that, when he came back from lengthy visits with her, “he had more behavioral outbursts,” according to Hiatt’s later decision.

In a text to Perez in 2016, the foster mother said that J.J. “asks for Grandma every 5 minutes and gets super emotional when I say that we’ll see her later.”

The Price Of Going Public

In the end, Goodwin’s decision to go public with her complaints worked against her.

Perez testified that she was concerned about the Civil Beat article because it revealed that J.J. was in foster care and included photographs and “personal information” about him.

Hiatt found this persuasive.

“The court does not dispute Goodwin’s right to express” her feelings of injustice, Hiatt wrote. “Goodwin obviously also has the right to engage in lawful litigation; write a book; and speak to journalists. However, having asserted these rights, the effects of their assertions on” J.J. had to be weighed.

J.J. at a Big Island ballpark on the day his grandmother found out he'd been adopted by his foster family.
J.J. at a Big Island ballpark on the day his grandmother found out he’d been adopted by his foster family. Courtesy: Deborah Goodwin

Lawrence, who represented Goodwin in her appeal, said he was particularly bothered by that part of Hiatt’s decision.

“We have these rights for a reason,” he said. “If I feel like I’m being railroaded by the government, this is my only option – to go to a news source and get my story out there.”

A Family Court decision is very hard to overturn.

“Its conclusions, if supported by the record and not clearly erroneous, must stand on appeal,” the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeal wrote in its 2021 ruling on Goodwin’s case. In effect, an appellant has to show that the court abused its discretion. And that discretion is very broad.

Wexler argues that, when blood relatives are involved, the “best interests” test – which he said amounts to “comparison shopping” between foster parents and relatives – should be replaced by a different process. The state should have to show with clear and convincing evidence that relatives are unfit before considering others.

The best-interests test, used around the U.S., “invites the system to enact its whims and prejudices – so of course, it will impose its will on those who dare to question the system itself,” he said.

DHS has often touted its process placing children with relatives. But Hawaii law contains no requirement that blood relatives be given preference in cases like Goodwin’s.

According to a 2014 Hawaii Supreme Court decision, that preference only applies when the state is seeking out an emergency foster care placement, in the first days after a child is removed from the parents.

In a concurring opinion, two justices argued that judges are not precluded from considering kinship, especially considering the vagueness of the “best interests” test. “While widely employed, ‘the best interests of the child’ test invites subjective judgments and factors … Kinship, as exemplified in the statutes, is an anchoring proposition in the sea of circumstances considered in the decision as to adoption, legal guardianship or permanent custody.” But a concurring opinion holds no weight as a precedent.

Hiatt wrote that she considered the blood ties – but that they were overridden by Goodwin’s actions, including her decision to go public.

Wexler finds that appalling.

“Everything this grandmother has done – including going public – demonstrates an enormous love for her grandchild,” he said. “Her willingness to fight for her grandchild should be considered a strength – not an excuse to deny this child, who’s already lost his mother, his grandmother as well.”

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