At least a decade ago, Hawaii Child Welfare Services starting sending foster children to live in the Hilo home of Yvonne and Paul Caitano. The Caitanos eventually adopted five of them, which allowed them to take in five more foster children, according to one of the adopted kids.

The Caitanos were known in their community for what seemed to be a compassionate willingness to care for other people’s children.

One woman, new to fostering children herself, met Yvonne Caitano around 2015.

“Yvonne was very supportive and very knowledgeable of services and she helped me answer questions that even cws workers would not,” the woman later wrote to a federal judge, referring to the state’s Child Welfare Services.

Dept of Human Services .
Child Welfare Services, part of the state Department of Human Services, placed at least 10 foster children in a home that turned out to be abusive. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

But in 2018, the idyllic picture was shattered by accusations of abuse, raising questions about when state social workers got wind that something was amiss in a household taking in so many foster children. This account is based on federal and state court documents in cases involving the Caitanos, media accounts and an interview with one of the Caitanos’ adoptive children, who Civil Beat is not naming because she is a victim of alleged sexual abuse.

First, one of the children, after being returned to her biological parents, reported that Paul Caitano had sexually assaulted her. The 10 children were removed from the house and placed with other families or facilities. In April of this year, Paul Caitano was charged with 23 felony counts of sexually assaulting two girls in the household.

Eight months after the children were removed, Yvonne Caitano and four others were indicted by a federal grand jury, accused of illegally getting pharmacies to provide large amounts of opioids and powerful narcotics and illegally distributing them for profit.

The defendants included Dr. Ernest Bade, 80 years old at the time and later found to be incompetent to stand trial because of dementia, and four women who worked at his medical clinic — Caitano, her then-80-year-old mother, her adult daughter and an unrelated women. A federal judge, finding that office manager Caitano was at the heart of the operation, sentenced her in 2020 to five years in prison.

One aggravating factor was that one of the children living with the Caitanos, 14 years old at the time, was forced to take part in the drug operation. The girl was told to count out pills and put them in envelope for customers who drove to the house to buy them. If she miscounted the pills or the money, the girl reported, she’d get berated — or beaten.

One of the children who lived in the Caitano household told Civil Beat that physical and mental abuse was common. The children were forced to stand facing a corner for a perceived infraction, sometimes all day or all night, she said.

“We’d get hit with belts or slippers or anything in reach — phone chargers,” she said.

The Bade drug ring garnered widespread media attention. But the Caitanos’ connection to the state’s foster care system has gone unexamined.

Civil Beat asked the Department of Human Services, the parent of CWS, how long the Caitanos had been fostering and adopting children, how much they were paid by the state over the years, whether the state got other reports of abuse or neglect before the February 2018 removal of the children and how often CWS visited the foster children to check on their welfare.

The department would not respond to most questions, citing a provision of Hawaii law that keeps the identity of foster parents confidential. Specifically, the department would not say when it first got reports of abuse in the Caitano household.

Paul Caitano
Foster and adoptive children were removed when one of the children reported being sexually molested by Paul Caitano. Hawaii Police Department

Some 1,000 children a year enter foster care in Hawaii. The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Virginia, using federal data, ranks the states by the number of children going into foster care as a percentage of those living in poverty, since the overwhelming majority of families caught up in the child welfare system are poor. By that measure, Hawaii’s foster care rate is about 43% higher than the national average, ranking it 20th among the states.

The department said that it requires monthly visits to children in foster care. But Hawaii has struggled over the years to meet a national standard of visiting 95% of children in foster care at least once a month to see how they’re doing. The most recent data shows the state making monthly visits in 84% of cases, somewhat higher than in previous years but still well short of the goal.

Many national studies have shown that foster care, even with exemplary foster parents, can cause lasting trauma to children. Researchers and legal scholars have argued that those consequences should be balanced against the dangers of leaving children with potentially abusive or neglectful parents.

Sometimes, the trauma goes well beyond being torn away from everything familiar — not only parents, but friends and schools and siblings — when foster and adoptive parents abuse or neglect children themselves. In six cases in 2020, the perpetrators of abuse and neglect in Hawaii were foster parents who were supposed to provide a refuge, according to federal statistics.

Isabella Kalua
Isabella Kalua’s adoptive parents are accused of second degree murder. HPD

One high-profile case involved Isabella Kalua, a 6-year-old girl whose disappearance caused widespread community outrage when her adoptive parents were accused of second-degree murder. Prosecutors alleged that Isaac and Lehua Kalua kept Isabella, whose birth name was Ariel Sellers, in a dog cage with duct tape over her mouth and refused to feed her.

The Kaluas took her in, along with some siblings, as foster children, despite Isaac’s felony convictions for terroristic threatening and assault. Lehua Kalua had an old felony drug arrest. These records could have been grounds for the state rejecting them as foster parents, though the offenses did not automatically disqualify them.

A search of eCourt Kokua, Hawaii’s online court records system, does not show criminal cases against the Caitanos other than traffic infractions before 2018. So the state may have had no reason to doubt that the Caitanos would be good parents.

But with 10 or more children enduring an allegedly abusive home, were there no warning signs until 2018?

The teenage girl who spoke to Civil Beat said that she did not report the abuse, which she said began about five or six months after she was placed there.

“We were certain if we opened our mouths, we’d get hit even more,” she said. She believes that CWS social workers “always go back and tell the caregivers everything that’s said.”

Once, she said, she was brushing the hair of a younger girl in the house when Paul Caitano became enraged that they had not gone to bed. She said he threw her against a wall and punched her in the eye, blackening it.

“If I told anyone, he’d do it to the other side,” she said. So when a teacher asked about the black eye, she insisted she had merely fallen down.

But she believes other children in the household reported what was going on, even before five of them were adopted.

She said the Caitanos were receiving a lot of money from the state for fostering and adopting the children, both because of the number of children and also because some of them were classified as requiring extra care. The state’s monthly payments for children in foster care or who have been adopted ranges from $649 to $776, depending on the age, but those figures do not account for extra payments for children with exceptional needs.

A federal judge in Yvonne Caitano’s case at one point raised the possibility that the state had paid the Caitanos $120,000 even after removing the children from their home. Yvonne Caitano’s lawyer, at her sentencing, said that the concerns over fraud had been cleared up. DHS would not disclose what it learned about the payments.

In any case, the amount in question gives a sense of how much the Caitanos were getting from the state for their role as foster or adoptive parents of 10 children.

Court documents lay out how one of the children was used as a runner in the drug scheme.

Police remove evidence from a Hilo medical practice illegally disseminating prescription drugs
Hawaii News Now reported in 2018 on the federal drug charges against Yvonne Caitano, Dr. Ernest Bade and others . Hawaii News Now

Caitano, at work at the Bade clinic, would call her mother, Marie Benevides, at her house to say that someone was coming by to purchase pills. Benevides would tell the girl to put a certain number of pills in an envelope, take it to the customer’s car and collect the money. If the pill counts or cash totals were wrong, according to the criminal complaint, Caitano’s adult daughter, Sheena Strong, would verbally or physically abuse the girl.

She told investigators that “the money they got from selling the pills was used to buy random stuff to store in containers in the garage or pay off credit cards and bills,” according to the complaint.

Clearly, the Caitanos’ role as foster parents was well-known in their community, as evidenced by letters written to the federal court judge pleading for leniency for Yvonne Caitano.

“Through the years, I have witnessed Yvonne conduct herself in a loving and nurturing manner – from fostering five children to later adopting them and giving them the loving home” that they lacked, one wrote. “In addition to her five children, Yvonne has always been there for many other less fortunate children.”

The teenager who spoke to Civil Beat took a different view. When her adoptive parents got into trouble, she said, “I was happy. It was a start to them getting what they gave us all those years.”

This project is supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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