Kauai’s $7 million adolescent treatment facility never opened to help the drug-dependent youth it was built to serve. But it has a new name, a new owner and a new goal to open by next August.

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After years of funding shortfalls, lawsuits and controversial proposals to repurpose the eight-bedroom facility for other uses, Grove Farm, a development company, took control of the drug treatment center in late September. Kauai County reverted the deed back to the land donor after inertia set ambitions to open the treatment center on an uncertain course.

Grove Farm sued the county to take over the property — including the multimillion-dollar taxpayer investment to construct a 160,000-square-foot facility — as part of a bid to speed up plans to establish inpatient addiction services for youth on an island where people grappling with drug dependency must board an airplane to access intensive treatment.

Grove Farm President Warren Haruki said the land development company sued Kauai County to regain control of the adolescent drug treatment facility, dismayed that after years its land gift had never been used for its intended purpose. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022

Over the last eight weeks, Grove Farm has formed a new nonprofit corporation and a three-member director’s board composed of a former school superintendent, a minister and a retired judge. A Hawaiian culturalist bestowed the building with a new name: Kaulu I Ka Pono Academy, or The Growing Righteousness Academy. 

The facility has been power-washed. Defunct air conditioning units are under repair. Long overgrown with hip-high invasive grasses, the five-acre lawn has been cut.

Proposed by the late Mayor Bryan Baptiste, a plan to fill the gap in services for drug-addicted youth materialized in 2003. Then for more than a decade, the plan’s biggest hurdle was finding a place to build it. 

Grove Farm agreed to donate a 5.8-acre parcel on Maalo Road in Kapaia to the county to site the facility in 2015. Two years later, the land donation was finalized. A facility was built with federal, state and county taxpayer dollars in 2019.

But the county could never get an addiction program up and running.

The center’s failure to open coincides with a time when the island is dealing with a rise in fentanyl abuse, a suicide problem and a longstanding lack of mental health and drug addiction resources.

Although the county originally resisted calls to give back the land, an agreement between the land development company and the county forged in 2017 stipulated that the property title automatically reverts back to Grove Farm if the land isn’t used for its intended purpose for more than two years. 

“Perhaps this is going to be the silver lining,” said Mayor Derek Kawakami. “I am optimistic that all of this history will be smoothed over once Grove Farm opens the center and we realize that our kids are being helped here at home.”

As it sets about building a new path forward, Grove Farm’s catch-up scheme is set on the ambition of opening the facility in time for the start of the 2023-2024 school year. But problems that plagued previous efforts to open the center persist, namely Hawaii’s dire shortage of health care workers and the difficult economics of the residential drug treatment business.

There are eight bedrooms at the 16-bed facility. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022

Sitting in what he intends to become one of two classrooms where students would be able to continue their public education while receiving treatment, Grove Farm Company President Warren Haruki laid out his rough vision for the drug treatment facility. But he cautioned that opening the doors will require community and philanthropic support. 

“There’s no higher priority on Kauai than the behavioral health problem,” Haruki said. “I think people need to understand that there are huge societal (cost benefits) if we can do this kind of early intervention — unemployment, judicial costs, incarceration, law enforcement.”

The treatment center’s primary component would be a 16-bed residential facility with year-round classroom learning supported by five staff from the Hawaii Department of Education’s Alternative Learning Programs Branch, according to Haruki’s plan. As a designated alternative learning center, the facility would help ensure that student residents do not fall behind on their studies.

Education is key to Haruki’s vision. Under Chapter 19, Hawaii’s school discipline code, a student can be suspended for up to 92 days for serious offenses, including use of an illicit drug or intoxicating substance while at school or a Department of Education-sponsored event.

Haruki also envisions the facility as a hub for intensive outpatient services during the day for youth who are transitioning out of the residential program or whose need does not rise to the level of inpatient care. Family therapy and counseling services would also be available.

The Kauai Humane Society would provide a therapy dog program. Farmers would teach resident youth how to grow crops and tend to a coop of laying hens. Local chefs would teach culinary lessons, kupuna would host talk story sessions, community members would offer classes in lauhala weaving lessons, yoga, hula and taiko drumming.

The facility would provide treatment to youth voluntarily, with the Hawaii Department of Health, state Department of Education and the Kauai court system acting as referral pipelines. 

And while it’s uncertain exactly how many youth on Kauai might require inpatient drug treatment, Kaulu I Ka Pono Academy board member and former Kauai public schools superintendent William Arakaki said the DOE has identified approximately 20 to 25 students on the Garden Isle who may need this level of support.

The facility would also welcome youth from other islands. Mel Rapozo, a longtime advocate for the treatment center, said keeping its 16 beds filled would be crucial to the program’s business model.

The county built the $7 facility with taxpayer dollars n 2019. But its doors never opened for the center's intended purpose.
When Grove Farm donated nearly six acres to Kauai County in 2015, the land gift was specifically intended to host the island’s first inpatient drug treatment center since Hurricane Iniki wiped out the last one nearly 30 years ago. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022

Apart from the difficulty of staffing an around-the-clock behavioral health facility, Kauai’s planned treatment center faces another complicated hurdle: Financing.

A county-funded feasibility study in 2013 questioned the cost-effectiveness of an adolescent substance abuse treatment facility on Kauai because “only very few Kauai adolescents would be appropriate for the service.” 

As a community nonprofit, Haruki said the facility would need to be financially self-sustaining. Operating costs would amount to roughly $3 to $4 million a year, he said.

Haruki acknowledged that piecing together enough funds to run the center successfully will be a challenge. Grove Farm, he said, is leaning on its extensive Rolodex of business leaders to drum up financial support.

“This island has many wealthy individuals that could write checks,” said Haruki, adding that the Grove Farm Foundation can be counted on to make a series of financial gifts to help launch the facility.

In addition to hiring an executive director, resident manager and possibly a chef to prepare three daily meals, the board members — Arakaki, retired judge Edmund Acoba and Hawaiian cultural practitioner and minister Jade Waialeale Battad — are trying to raise funds from state and county government, local businesses, foundations and individual donors. 

There are doubters, however.

Dr. Graham Chelius, a Kauai doctor who said he has 170 patients who are using medication to treat their opiate addiction, said Kauai, with its staggering drug abuse problem, would greatly benefit from the proposed inpatient rehab facility. But he questioned the ability of Grove Farm to overcome the financial hurdles that snarled previous efforts to open the facility.

“Unless Steve Case has said ‘I’m going to personally bankroll this thing,’ they’re still facing the same problems that we are facing,” said Chelius, referring to the billionaire Grove Farm owner and co-founder of America Online. “I’m sitting back with a bowl of popcorn like, ‘All right, let’s see what you’ve got.’”

‘Nowhere Else For Them To Go’

Kauai has been without an inpatient drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility since Hurricane Iniki ripped through the island in 1992.

Since then, young people on Kauai who experience a drug, alcohol or mental health crisis typically must fly to Oahu for treatment. But when all of the state’s drug rehab and psychiatric beds are full, which happens periodically, there’s no place for Kauai patients to go.

Even in Honolulu, where most of the state’s addiction and psychiatry services are concentrated, patient need at times outpaces practitioner availability.

Retired district court judge Edmund Acoba is a member of the three-person board of directors for a new nonprofit corporation formed to help open a youth drug treatment facility on Kauai. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022

“It was always sad for me when I had to tell a kid, ‘We’ve got to send you to Oahu to Bobby Benson because we have no place for you here,’” said Acoba, the retired judge who is a member of the new Kaulu I Ka Pono Academy director’s board.

One in four Kauai high school students is at high risk for drug and alcohol abuse, according to the 2018 Kauai Youth ReportHowever, residential treatment is a very intensive service for which only a small proportion of Kauai youth would qualify. Most adolescents in need of drug addiction treatment are best suited for outpatient services. 

The state Child and Adolescent Mental Health Department served 264 youth on Kauai with a drug dependency problem in fiscal year 2021, up from 202 youth in fiscal year 2017 and 160 youth in 2012, according to CAMHD Chief Scott Shimabukuro. 

Drug addiction alone is not a qualifying diagnosis for CAMHD. But the agency provides substance abuse treatment to youth who also have a diagnosed mental disorder.

A Sputtering Start

The building’s lack of productivity is the result of a series of events, such as the county’s decision to cancel its contract with the Oahu-based operator it hired to run the facility.

At the time, the county cited problems with the service provider’s “performance and responsiveness” but wouldn’t provide specifics about why the county’s agreement with Hope Treatment Services went south. The ousted operator sued over the contract breach, alleging that the county unjustly benefited from the service provider’s investments in the building.

A lawsuit is still pending.

A longtime advocate of the youth treatment center, Mel Rapozo said he is reenergized by the progress Grove Farm has made in the few short weeks since the company regained ownership of the treatment center parcel. Rapozo is a special investigator in the county office of the prosecuting attorney who won a seat on the county council in the Nov. 8 election. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022

Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit and the county, still lacking a service provider for the facility, chose to repurpose the still-vacant building as an isolation center for people infected with the disease.

The DOH’s Kauai District Health Office confined approximately 150 coronavirus-infected people between the spring of 2020 and the spring of 2022, about 90% of whom were residents. 

As the pandemic wound down, the county embraced a new vision to hand the treatment facility over to the county prosecutor and turn it into a hub for preexisting adolescent drug prevention and jail diversion services, as well as programming for crime victims and witnesses. 

The plan entailed redesigning what would have been bedrooms into classrooms for public school students who have been suspended for drug violations or offices for private outpatient drug treatment and mental health services.

But the pivot away from residential drug treatment drew controversy and the plan never came to fruition.

Frustrated over the vacant facility, Hawaii Health Systems Corporation last year formed a nonprofit subsidiary known as Kauai Adolescent Treatment Center for Healing, or KATCH. Made up of HHSC stakeholders, as well as state health regulators, public school leaders and concerned community members, the group cast a vision for opening the 16,000-square-foot building to serve its original intent.

Kauai County offered to transfer ownership of the adolescent treatment center to HHSC, which operates Samuel Mahelona Memorial Hospital and Kauai Veterans Memorial Hospital on Kauai, and its new non-profit arm KATCH.

But then, for more than a year, the pending property transfer remained under legal review. 

During that time, Rapozo, who was a member of the KATCH director’s board, said the board was divided by two members affiliated with HHSC who did not want to pursue a residential treatment model due to the difficult economics associated with inpatient services and the board’s four other members who opposed the proposed pivot to outpatient services only.

“That’s not what this building, with eight bedrooms, was built for,” Rapozo said. “You can run a day program out of a trailer anywhere.”

Rapozo said he resigned from the board over the disagreement.

“It was a paper board,” Rapozo said. “When they made the decision to deviate from residential treatment, that’s when I realized I couldn’t commit anymore.”

Civil Beat’s health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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