In the meantime, Carlos Valdez lost custody of his son in a case that sheds light on the state’s procedure for deciding whether to label parents as abusers.

Three years ago, the Hawaii Department of Human Services sent Carlos Valdez a letter: Its investigation had confirmed that he had abused his son.

This May, DHS sent the Big Island father another letter – it had now concluded the opposite. The alleged abuse was “not confirmed.” It gave no explanation for the reversal.

No harm, no foul? Hardly.

Carlos Valdez in Hilo, Hawaii at the Judiciary building.
Carlos Valdez in Hilo, Hawaii at the Judiciary building. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

On the strength of that first letter in 2020, the state opened a child welfare case against Valdez. That could have led to his parental rights being ended for good. So Valdez agreed to give full custody to the mother of his son in a separate Family Court action as the cost of ending the child welfare case.

“I was basically pressured to agree to these circumstances,” he said.

Then the state changed its mind about the very allegation that triggered the child welfare case in the first place.

In the meantime, Valdez has not seen his son, now 8, for three years.

The father and son used to have regular visits, sometimes pretending to be police or firefighters. Valdez would give his son shoulder rides around his lanai as the boy fired his colorful toy gun and reminded his dad that they needed to water the plants.

“I think about my son and just want to cry,” Valdez said. “It’s devastating.”

Carlos Valdez gives his son a shoulder ride
Carlos Valdez has not seen his son for three years. (Courtesy: Carlos Valdez)

His case shines a light on Hawaii’s process for deciding whether parents have abused or neglected their children, and how it can have life-altering repercussions for parents like Valdez.

A DHS social worker determines whether parents have abused or neglected their children based on a preponderance of evidence – the lowest standard, requiring only that the conduct is more likely to have happened than not.

By contrast, criminal charges in general must be proven beyond reasonable doubt, the strictest evidentiary standard.

Parents can appeal the decision. But if the charge of abuse or neglect leads to a Family Court case, it can get caught up in a lengthy and convoluted process and lost in a jumble of other court proceedings.

Valdez said he didn’t even know he could contest the DHS confirmation with the Family Court judge.

Parents like Valdez say they are told that, since they have been confirmed as perpetrators of abuse or neglect, they must agree to counseling if they hope to even visit their children, much less regain custody.

But what happens when decisions made by social workers using the lowest evidentiary standard are wrong? Parents are left in an impossible quandary – admit to something they did not do, or face losing all contact with their children.

“In effect, DHS is holding children hostage, requiring false confessions before a parent can even see a child,” Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Virginia, wrote in a statement. “But if the parent confesses, then they can never be proven innocent – and that in itself increases the likelihood that the child will lose her or his parents forever.”

Other Parents Face The Same Quandary

Nikki Alpichi got one of those DHS letters in 2022 saying the state had confirmed she neglected her children by not reporting that her partner of seven years had been sexually abusing one of the girls.

A therapist for a DHS contractor told her she must write a letter of apology to her 7-year-old daughter saying she knew that the girl’s older sister was being abused but did nothing about it. Otherwise, the therapist said, Alpichi would not be able to have unsupervised visits.

The problem, Alpichi said, was that it simply was not true – she had no knowledge of her partner molesting the older sister and first heard about the accusations when he was arrested.

“I’m not going to admit something I knew nothing about,” Alpichi said.

So she conferred with her lawyer and composed a letter telling her daughter she was sorry for what the 7-year-old was going through. But it stopped short of admitting any guilt. It seemed to be enough to placate the therapist. Soon afterwards, Alpichi got unsupervised visits with her children. But the therapist acted as if the letter really had been a confession, Alpichi said.

“I’m sure there are a lot of parents out there who admit, because they want to see their kids,” she said.

Shana Logan told a counselor that she would not admit to something she did not do. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022)

Shana Logan got a DHS confirmation letter in 2017. She said the state wanted her to admit to abusing her autistic son before she could see the boy and her daughter.

But Logan said she had done nothing wrong – she said her daughter, upset about having to change schools, had misrepresented Logan’s routine care of the autistic boy as sexual abuse. Years later, a counselor wrote that she did not believe Logan was an abuser and that several other therapists had come to the same conclusion.

Logan cited the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination, telling the state, “I can’t incriminate myself just to get my child back because if I do, you’ll use it against me and I’ll never get my child back.”

Logan’s counselor, who worked for a state contractor, told her she often saw cases in which the state wanted parents to confess before they were allowed to go through the steps needed to see or reunite with their kids.

“She said, ‘Shana, if you didn’t do it, don’t admit.’”

But the counselor told her if she went that route, she would be unable to treat her because Logan would be deemed “non-compliant.”

Logan wanted to appeal the state’s finding. But her lawyer was due to have heart surgery and a couple of months later, a different lawyer called to say that the first one had died.

By then, it was too late to appeal.

CWS never tried to terminate her parental rights. In the end, her daughter aged out of the foster system and her son remains with his father.

Reversals Are Rare

DHS social workers investigate allegations of harm and make determinations in consultation with their supervisors, spokeswoman Amanda Stevens said.

If the allegation does not lead to a Family Court case – in which the state has taken custody of the child or is seeking termination of parental rights, for instance – the parent can seek review from an administrative hearing officer. The appeal, too, is decided on the preponderance of evidence, the lowest standard.

DHS cannot file a child welfare case in Family Court unless it has confirmed mistreatment, Stevens said. When that happens, the parent can challenge the confirmation and a judge will then decide if it was warranted.

In addition to judges and hearing officers, Stevens said, social workers or their supervisors can reverse findings of abuse if they get new information or someone raises concerns.

But it doesn’t happen often. “Based on our experience in these different systems, we believe that reversals are rare,” Stevens said.

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‘I Lost My Goddamn Mind’

Valdez grew up in Colorado, and moved to Hawaii in 2011. He works as a process server in Hilo.

He struggled with addiction as a young man, and checked himself into rehabs on a few occasions.

By his own admission, he’s not an easy-going guy content to let things slide. “My presence is very intense,” he said. “It’s very much obvious when I go anywhere.”

Valdez and the mother of his son got into a bitter custody battle about a year after the boy was born in 2014, according to a complaint Valdez filed with DHS.

Eventually, he says, he got weekly overnight and alternating weekend visits for four years.

Starting in 2019, he said, the mother started reporting suspicions that Valdez was sexually abusing the boy, leading to a series of interviews and examinations.

In 2020, the state finally intervened, putting the child in foster care for a short time before returning him to his mother. A few months later, Valdez said, he got a letter saying he was a confirmed perpetrator of abuse.

He said he immediately asked for an appeal, but a DHS social worker told him that was not the protocol – that the Family Court judge had not yet confirmed him as an abuser, and he should wait for that. But Valdez said the judge never brought it up.

“I found that very odd,” he said.

In the meantime, the state had referred him to counseling with one of its contractors. Valdez said that a counselor told him if he wanted to restart visits with his son, he would have to admit the abuse.

“I told her straight out that that’s never going to happen,” he said. “I’m not going to admit something that I know never happened.”

Valdez never did the counseling.

In 2021, Valdez said he was asked to stipulate to an agreement to close the child welfare case and to give the mother of his son full custody.

“I was pushed into the corner to accept this,” he said.

A few months later, he came down with a bad case of Covid and took the rest of the year off to regroup.

“I made a vow in 2023 that I was going to start the case back up and I was going to go to war with CWS,” he said.

In 2020, Valdez had read the DHS letter that confirmed an allegation that he had “threatened physical harm/abuse.” What he had failed to notice was another confirmation in the second column of the letter that stated he was also a perpetrator of sexual abuse.

“I lost my goddamn mind,” Valdez said.

He prepared to appeal to a hearing officer and present evidence that he believed showed conflicts of interest and other irregularities in his case. But at the end of May, he got a letter from the state Attorney General’s office. No hearing would be necessary.

“After a careful review of the case, DHS has decided to change the disposition,” it stated.

Valdez said he realized he should have been happy. Instead, he was “pissed, frustrated, sad, angry.”

For one thing, he thought about the emotional damage to his son from the ordeal.

For himself, “It’s created PTSD, trust issues, anxiety … There’s times when I feel so exhausted and drained going through this process. I can’t even explain.”

As for DHS, he said, “This is just disgusting that they have this kind of power without accountability.”

Richard Wexler
Richard Wexler.

Wexler, the Virginia advocate for child protection reform, said he used to hear more about practices like Hawaii’s.

“Perhaps other states have curbed them – but clearly, not Hawaii,” he said.

Wexler said he’s seen analogous situations in which spouses or relatives are told to refrain from defending a parent accused of abusing a child if they hope to get custody.

Wexler argues that visits – crucial to children and parents and any hope of reunification – should never be conditioned on accused parents admitting guilt.

Neither should therapy.

“Who knows? In some cases the therapist might come to understand that the parent is, in fact, innocent and tell that to DHS,” he said

Valdez now plans to try to reopen his custody case in the hopes that he will be able to see his son again.

“I’m not going to stop,” he said, “until I have the last breath in me.”

This project is supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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