Hawaii caseworkers struggle to keep up with federal requirements to meet with foster kids every month, data shows.

Teo Dimitrov said his son kept the secret for years. 

The boy’s former foster father, Kenneth E. Jones, had allegedly sexually abused him multiple times between 2013 and 2015 when he was between the ages of 3 and 4. But he didn’t feel safe enough to share his experience until years later, when he and other children were playing a Truth or Dare-like game at a new foster home, according to Dimitrov.

What is your deepest, darkest secret? the kids asked.

Well, Uncle Ken used to …

Jones, 58, is now facing criminal charges for sexually assaulting the boy at his Iroquois Point home and molesting his brother. Separately Jones is accused of raping a girl under the age of 14 in 2014. Jones has pleaded not guilty to two separate indictments and is awaiting trial. Jones’ public defender Ryan Akio Ha did not respond to a request for comment. 

A home in the Iroquois Point neighborhood is photographed on Monday, June 12, 2023, in Ewa Beach. Allegations of child abuse occurred in this home. Photo by Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023
Ken Jones is a former Hawaii foster parent, Iroquois Point resident and Boy Scout pack leader accused of sexually abusing three children. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023; Mugshot: Honolulu Police/2022)

Dimitrov, whose children were placed in Jones’ home by the Hawaii Child Welfare Services office, is now left wondering why the state workers charged with overseeing his children in the foster system failed to detect a problem. The children were placed in foster care following a report of neglect and substance abuse by their mother, according to case records Dimitrov shared.

The case highlights a longstanding problem at Hawaii’s child welfare office. Although the system, as a recipient of federal funds, requires that foster children get at least one visit a month, that doesn’t always happen. Dimitrov’s son, for example, doesn’t remember any case visits, the father said.

“Couldn’t we have caught him back then?” Dimitrov asked. “If someone had asked them and the kids trusted them, this person could have been stopped.”

Missing Visits

In recent years, CWS missed about 1 in 5 visits with children in foster care, according to Hawaii Department of Human Services data. That’s below national standards that call for a near-perfect attendance rate.

Overall, Hawaii caseworkers are failing to meet expectations for the quality and frequency of visits to children, both in and out of foster care, about half the time, state data shows. DHS did not respond to repeated requests to disaggregate that statistic.

The state’s failure to visit kids in foster care, alongside several other shortcomings, led the federal government to put CWS on a performance improvement plan in 2017. 

“Lack of caseworker visits with children hinders the ability to assess, engage, and plan for safety, permanency, and well-being,” the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services wrote. 

In-home “eyeball to eyeball” visits with foster children are essential for building trust with children so that they feel comfortable telling their caseworker if something is wrong, said Laurie Tochiki, CEO of EPIC Ohana, a nonprofit that serves families in the child welfare system. 

“If we fail to do those things, that creates more pukas (holes) where something like this could fall through the cracks,” she said. 

Adult with kids silhouetted at the Capitol.
Children in foster care are supposed to see their caseworker once a month. That doesn't always happen. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017)

Dimitrov’s case is not the only one to raise alarms about a lack of supervision for foster children in Hawaii.

Just last month, Wahiawa resident Bryson Mahoe pleaded guilty to sexually abusing two girls — aged 6 and 8 — while they were being fostered by his own parents.

“It’s horrible. They’re supposed to do checks once a month. That’s the protocol, once a month. Doesn’t seem like a lot,” attorney Randall Rosenberg told Hawaii News Now. “It sounds like it would have saved these kids.”

Overall, cases involving foster parents represent a very small percentage of Hawaii's reported child abuse cases.

From 2017 through 2021, there were more than 10,000 reports of child abuse in Hawaii, according to the state’s annual report on child abuse and neglect. Only 72 of the reported cases – less than 1% – were perpetrated by a foster parent. The vast majority of recorded child abuse cases involved the child’s parents, according to the report.

Even still, something needs to change, said Sen. Joy San Buenaventura, who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. New funding and legislation passed this year could make a difference, she said.

“We just need to make them show up for as many visits as they’re required to show up,” she said. 

In an email on Tuesday evening, DHS spokeswoman Amanda Stevens said CWS does its best to meet federal requirements.

"The Department appreciates the support from the Legislature and with additional funding will provide child welfare staff more training and implement ways to address the secondary trauma they are exposed so that like our families, they can be taken care of and valued as much as possible," she said.

Caseworkers Juggling High Caseloads 

Over 2,500 children were in foster care in Hawaii as of 2021, according to the most recent DHS data.

Caseworkers are having a hard time keeping up with them. Part of the reason, they say, is they’re stretched too thin.

In 2021, caseworkers missed over 2,500 out of more than 13,000 visits, department data shows. Over 20% of missed visits were skipped because of heavy workloads, according to the data.

The average caseload statewide was 26 as of March 2022, according to DHS. National standards around appropriate caseloads are evolving, but for years, experts have stated the workload shouldn’t go beyond managing 15 to 24 families at a time per social worker, according to a 2019 research summary by the San Diego University School of Social Work.

Caseloads are particularly high on Maui, where caseworkers were juggling an average of 44 cases in March 2022, DHS data shows.

The state considered that a crisis level a few years ago. Caseworkers on the Big Island were juggling 40 to 50 children at a time. The situation was so dire that courts fined DHS for failing to file timely reports. The situation improved after the Legislature in 2018 created additional caseworker positions and funded travel costs.

The workload per employee on that island has since decreased, and the frequency of visits to children has increased, according to a report to the Legislature. 

The number of children in foster care is about half what it was in the early 2000s, according to DHS data. But the numbers have been ticking up in recent years.

A decade ago, there was a monthly average of 1,197 children in foster care. The latest data, from fiscal year 2021, shows 1,555 — a 30% increase. 

One reason is new intakes. There was a 10% increase in cases referred to CWS for investigation between 2014 and 2018, according to the last federal review. Hawaii children also are staying in foster care longer than they used to. As of 2017, children were remaining in foster care an average of 9.6 months longer than they had two years prior, according to the federal report. 

As of 2021, the average length of stay for a child in foster care was 18 months, DHS data shows. 

These trends have occurred without an increase in staff for CWS, according to DHS data. CWS has had roughly 400 positions since 2017, and many of those are unfilled. As of January 2022, 21% of caseworker positions were vacant, according to the department’s FY2023 report.

In a recent state review, East Hawaii CWS workers said pay is an issue. As of last year, CWS was advertising social worker jobs with salaries between about $48,000 and $68,500.

All of these factors have an impact on work quality and the ability to visit children regularly.

CWS recommendations graphic
East Hawaii Child Welfare workers said the system could be improved by investing in staff resources and training. (Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2023)

The federal assessment in 2017 found that in 44% of reviewed cases, CWS failed to do proper safety and risk assessments.

“In most of these cases, the caseworker contact was less than monthly, often missing consecutive months,” the report states. “In 3 cases, children were left in unsafe homes despite reports of safety concerns; the children were later removed.” 

In an interview, CWS officials told Civil Beat the agency has made improvements since that report was published but did not respond to repeated requests to share data to illustrate those changes.

“I think we do a great job of responding and intervening and making sure children are safe,” Elladine Olevao, the Hawaii Child Welfare Services branch administrator, said in an interview. 

CWS has also revamped its staff training, which includes a section on sex abuse, according to Kintaro Yonekura, CWS's assistant program development administrator.

But Stevens, the department spokeswoman, said in an email that challenges remain, including dealing with public scrutiny.

"Filling vacancies will help but as long as child welfare workers are criticized and villainized for the work they do, it will be a challenge to recruit applicants," she said.

"Increasing salaries could help with recruitment and retainment but that alone is not enough.  Workers need to feel proud and supported for the work they do and many times all the negative press and getting targeted and threatened on social media become a deterrent to work in the field of child welfare."

State lawmakers took several steps this year to improve the system. 

Rep Joy San Buenaventura co Chair House Judiciary committee.
Sen. Joy San Buenaventura hopes the governor signs off on a working group that would investigate CWS's problems and propose solutions. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018)

A new task force could identify the root causes of flawed foster care oversight, San Buenaventura said. The Malama Ohana Working Group’s mission will be to recommend “transformative changes to the State's existing child welfare system.” It is awaiting Gov. Josh Green’s signature. 

“Obviously we fail these kids, and we have to find out why we fail these kids,” she said. 

Lawmakers also directed more than $2.7 million to Child Welfare Services for social worker pay increases, training and recruitment efforts. 

“I don't want to hear any more excuses,” she said. 

In addition, legislators passed a bill to force clergy to disclose cases of child abuse and neglect in certain circumstances. 

“Obviously we fail these kids, and we have to find out why we fail these kids." - Hawaii Sen. Joy San Buenaventura

Speaking generally, Olevao noted that CWS is part of a larger system that is responsible for protecting children. 

“We are part of a child welfare system. We are one piece,” she said. “Yes, we are a mandated agency, but it is all of our responsibility to ensure children are kept safe.” 

Indeed the courts have oversight over foster children too. 

Children in foster care are entitled to a guardian al litem who is either a social worker employed by the state court system, a volunteer overseen by the state court system – both of which visit the child monthly – or an attorney who is expected to visit every 90 days, according to Kelli Haaff, a Maui-based supervisor in the state court system’s special services branch.

“We are the eyes and ears for the judge, and we have to ensure our children’s needs are being met,” Olevao said. 

The guardians, at least on Maui, visit consistently and don’t have a problem managing their caseloads, according to Haaff. They make a point of being diligent, she said, because they know CWS struggles. 

“We know how short-handed and short-staffed they are,” she said. 

It’s essential that children feel a connection to at least one person in their orbit, Haaff said. 

“Kids aren’t going to open up to you if they don’t see some kind of consistency from you,” she said. “They need to know they can trust you and that you’re going be there.”

‘Will I Be Protected?’

Several high-profile cases have raised concerns about CWS’ vetting and oversight of foster parents. 

The agency conducts FBI background checks, including fingerprinting, and sex offender registry reviews of all prospective foster parents, but some individuals with questionable backgrounds have been approved anyway. 

Notably, there's the case of Isabella Kalua, whose birth name is Ariel Sellers, a Waimanalo girl who was allegedly murdered by her foster-turned-adoptive parents in 2021. Her body has not been found. CWS approved Isaac “Sonny” Kalua III and Lehua Kalua despite criminal records that could have disqualified them from taking in children. The Kaluas have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial. 

"We were impacted by that case," Olevao said. "Once that hit the news for us, internally, we already started to make changes about how we practice."

However, she didn't offer specifics. The state has been tight-lipped about its failures in the case.

Isabella Kalua, whose birth name is Ariel Sellers, went missing after she was adopted by her foster parents. She was never found, and the adoptive parents are now facing murder charges.  (Hawaii News Now/2021)

Other cases of abuse in the foster system have also raised alarm.

In one case, two former foster kids said they were sexually assaulted by their foster dad, a man who never should've been approved to care for children since his own child was put into foster care in New York. A lawsuit against the state resulted in a $585,000 settlement.

In another instance, a 13-year-old girl was placed in a Big Island foster home even after DHS knew her sister had already been sexually abused there, according to a lawsuit. Her mother is currently suing the state and its contractor, Catholic Charities.

When vetting foster parent candidates, state recordkeeping may be an issue. A state audit in 2021 found that “state, FBI, and/or child abuse and neglect clearances were missing” in a dozen case files. 

In other cases, foster parents may not present issues at first but display problematic behavior later that the state fails to catch. While CWS won't talk about specific cases, numerous stories raise questions about whether the agency was visiting the children regularly.

One former foster youth killed his foster mother, Jolyn Kipapa, in 2014 after he and other children in the Waimanalo home were allegedly abused for years. Another foster child in the house allegedly molested several children in the house, according to a lawsuit. The civil trial is scheduled for next month.

There's also the 2017 death of 3-year-old Fabian Garett-Garcia, who died in the care of his foster mother. A judge found the woman not guilty of a crime, but the boy’s parents say DHS and Catholic Charities observed “open and obvious injuries” on the child nearly a dozen times before his death but failed to act. 

Caseworkers are struggling to keep up. In multiple lawsuits, the state is being accused of failed oversight of foster children. (April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2023)

A Civil Beat review of public records didn’t yield any red flags about Jones’ background. He was a pack leader with the local Boy Scouts, and his wife was an elementary school teacher.  

CWS declined to answer questions about Dimitrov’s case citing confidentiality rules about the identities of foster parents.

According to the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, Jones was charged in only one prior case, a 2016 charge for driving while intoxicated that was ultimately dismissed. In recent years, Jones has been living in Alaska.

Even if CWS were adequately resourced, Tochiki said it would still be possible for child sexual abuse cases to go undetected. Abusers often put on a “front,” she said, and the power dynamic within a foster home can cause a child to fear retaliation for speaking up. 

“Foster children have problems trusting adults, for good reason,” she said. “And so (they may ask themselves) if I tell somebody, will I be protected?” 

Dimitrov said he hopes the state makes changes so that what is alleged to have happened to his children doesn’t happen to others. 

“Imagine my children, how many years they lived in fear,” he said. “For my kids, it’s too late. But for other kids, it’s not.”

To report child abuse on Oahu, call the state's hotline any time at 808-832-5300. To report child abuse on Hawaii Island, Maui, Molokai, Lanai or Kauai, call toll-free anytime at 1-888-380-3088.

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