John Hill: Hawaii Should Come Clean About Its Actions In A Notorious Child Abuse Case - Honolulu Civil Beat

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John Hill

John Hill is the Investigations Editor at Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at or follow him on Twitter at @johncornellhill.

Almost nothing is known about the actions of the public officials who handed over Ariel Sellers to the Waimanalo couple accused of killing her.

Editor’s note: Civil Beat Investigations Editor John Hill is launching a new investigative column that examines issues of transparency and government accountability at all levels and in all areas of Hawaii.

Will anyone ever have to answer for Ariel Sellers’ death?

I’m not talking about her adoptive parents, Isaac and Lehua Kalua. They are accused of keeping the 6-year-old girl they renamed Isabella in a dog cage with her mouth duct-taped so she would not roam the house at night seeking the food they failed to provide. A trial early next year will decide the Waimanalo couple’s fate.

No, I am talking instead about the public servants and government contractors who took part in handing her over to the Kaluas.

To be clear, I am not equating the actions of these public officials with the horrible crimes that led to arguably the most notorious child abuse case in recent Hawaii history. But they are professionals with great responsibilities – and when something goes very wrong, as it did here, they should be held accountable.

It’s easy – but not always fair – to second-guess child welfare officials. Social workers cannot be expected to always know which of the many parents and foster caregivers they oversee are going to do something horrible. Sometimes no one outside the family has any reason to suspect bad things are happening behind closed doors.

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This was not such a case. The Kaluas had criminal records that would have been enough for the Department of Human Services to reject them as foster parents, much less adoptive parents. They were in financial straits that also could have disqualified them.

And a lawsuit now alleges that there were several reports to the state and others that the Kaluas were abusing Ariel for more than a year before she disappeared. They are, of course, just allegations, but the lawsuit gives very specific details, including dates, places and people. And Ariel’s biological mother Melanie Joseph told Civil Beat she also warned state social workers about her fears that Ariel was being abused.

The poor girl is dead after unimaginable suffering. But what do we know about the actions of the various state social workers, contractors and court officials?

Almost nothing.

Who Was The Judge?

What about the Family Court judge who approved the adoption? Under Hawaii law adoptive parents must be “fit and proper persons and financially able to give the individual a proper home and education.” A judge must make sure this standard is met.

In addition to his criminal record of felony assault and terroristic threatening, Isaac Kalua filed for bankruptcy in July 2020, several months before Ariel’s adoption. He listed $130,893 in debt beyond what he owed on his house, mostly from credit cards and lines of credit.

I asked the state Judiciary the name of this judge. The answer – everything about adoption proceedings is private, even the name of the judge.

“Once an adoption is granted, all records are placed under seal,” a spokesman for the Judiciary wrote in an email. “In light of these statutory mandates, the Judiciary is prohibited from disclosing the names of judges who grant adoption petitions because this would indirectly be disclosing confidential information.”

But how does this apply to the Ariel Sellers case? It’s been reported publicly scores of times that she had been adopted by the Kaluas. It is no longer confidential.

Judges don’t have lifetime tenure. They petition the Hawaii Judicial Selection Commission to approve them for new six-year terms. The commission should think long and hard about granting another term to the judge who approved Ariel’s adoption, or at least ask some tough questions. The public needs to know the identity of that judge so people have a chance to comment.

What about the social workers and their supervisors at DHS, and the contractors who advise them about whether a placement is safe, including Catholic Charities, which is named in the lawsuit?

I asked DHS whether it or any other entity had conducted a review of what went wrong in Ariel’s case and, if so, if I could see it. I also asked for an interview with Cathy Betts, DHS director since 2020 and before that deputy director.

No response on the Betts interview. As for the review: “DHS has done an internal review of the confidential records of the case. The records are not able to be disclosed because they are prohibited from disclosure by law.”

Isaac and Lehua Kalua
A trial for Isaac and Lehua Kalua, accused of second-degree murder in the death of their adoptive daughter, is scheduled for early next year. (Honolulu Police Department photos)

It’s true that federal law requires state child welfare agencies to keep records confidential, including abuse reports, to protect the rights of children and their parents and guardians.

But there are exceptions. One federal provision calls for the states to allow public disclosure of “the findings or information about the case of child abuse or neglect which has resulted in a child fatality or near fatality.”

Earlier this year, I asked DHS for “findings and information” in child abuse deaths and near deaths for the past several years. The department did provide some very barebones information about several cases – but not Ariel’s.

The reason? Though the girl had been missing for more than a year, she had not been officially declared dead.

A judge made that declaration in July, so I once again asked DHS for its “findings and information.” The department said it was waiting for the court to send a written order or death certificate.

This month, I asked again. No response. Apparently, the department is still waiting and feels no need to contact the court itself. Maybe the court will never send anything and DHS will use that as an excuse to never provide information.

Isabella Kalua
Ariel Sellers, renamed Isabella Kalua by her adoptive parents, disappeared two years ago. (Honolulu Police Department photo)

DHS also failed to respond to my question about whether any disciplinary action had been taken as a result of its review.

Taking a step back, the confidentiality provisions are meant to protect the privacy rights of children and their parents or guardians. Tragically, Ariel’s privacy rights are now moot. And the Kaluas stand accused of killing her. Their public trial would seem to pretty much demolish any expectations they had of privacy.

Another exception to the privacy provisions in federal law: The states are required to disclose information to a government entity or its agent that have “a need for such information in order to carry out its responsibilities under law to protect children from child abuse and neglect.”

So it would seem that the Legislature, as the overseer of DHS, could demand to see the records.

I asked Rep. Lisa Marten, who represents the district that includes Waimanalo, where Ariel lived her short life, why the Legislature doesn’t use its oversight powers to demand answers.

“My role is not revenge,” she said.

Marten does not want to be seen as attacking DHS because she hopes to have a productive dialogue with child welfare officials to make improvements to the system.

“I want to appreciate what they do instead of attacking them,” she said.

State Rep. Lisa Marten does not want to be in the position of attacking the state child welfare agency. (Lisa Marten photo)

She pointed out that State Auditor Les Kondo is due to complete an audit of DHS sometime soon, and that the Legislature has beefed up child welfare budgets, including money for a state contractor to visit foster homes more regularly. A new working group will also review DHS, though its recommendations are in no way binding.

But none of this directly addresses what happened in Ariel’s case. As for that, Marten said, the civil suit will force DHS to explain itself.

I appreciate Marten’s efforts – and her willingness to at least talk to me, unlike Betts – but I disagree that seeking accountability from officials amounts to “revenge.” I also know that many civil suits settle out of court before the facts come out – in fact, that is often why they settle out of court. So I would not rely on that venue for a reckoning.

A California Case Offers An Alternative

I wondered what kind of public accountability took place in the aftermath of notorious child abuse cases in other states, and so simply Googled something like “worst child abuse cases.”

At the top of the results was the case of the Turpin children in Riverside County, California. The 13 children, aged 2 to 29, had been abused for years, chained to their beds and given inadequate food, left living in filthy conditions. The parents are serving terms of 25 years to life in state prison.

Some of the children were subsequently placed in a foster home where they were allegedly abused again, and the adult children reported that the county had been remiss in releasing money held for them to help them navigate their new lives.

It turns out there had been some earlier horrific cases of child abuse in Riverside County. And the response to those cases and the Turpin “house of horrors” offers some contrasts to Hawaii’s response to Ariel’s death.

For one, in 2018, Riverside County’s director of the Child Services Division resigned amid civil lawsuits over the county’s failure to act in two cases of severe child abuse that resulted in more than $11 million in settlements. That same year, the county hired an outside expert to do a “root-cause analysis” of what went wrong in cases that led to civil lawsuits and make reforms.

In 2021, the county Board of Supervisors paid a law firm $868,000 to assess the county’s care of the Turpin children and the overall child welfare system. The law firm assembled a team of experts from UC Berkeley, UCLA and elsewhere. It analyzed 30,000 pages or records and interviewed more than 100 people.

It issued a 634-page report replete with recommendations for change. Much of the report pertaining to the Turpin children was redacted – they are all still alive and retain privacy rights – but at least the body that oversees the child welfare system got a detailed accounting.

I don’t know whether these efforts made a difference in Riverside County. But they underscore a basic truth that Hawaii officials should embrace.

Child welfare agencies and courts use our tax money to achieve the goal of protecting children. We have the right to know what they are doing, or failing to do, in our name.

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About the Author

John Hill

John Hill is the Investigations Editor at Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at or follow him on Twitter at @johncornellhill.

Latest Comments (0)

This is like Peter-Boy on the Big Island. And it's not revenge, its the public's right to know. Ariel's sister saw her in the cage with her mouth and nose taped. She later saw her dead. She'll never forget that. This cover up is all just wrong and Hawaii gets away with it. Stop and open those files already. CPS is publicly funded.

surfchick · 1 week ago

If the Kaluas were in financial despair why did they change from foster status to adoption? They are "allegedly" evil but sadly there is blame all around. Poor little girl (and the other children).

Sad_Twin_Voter · 1 week ago

Thank you, John Hill, for this excellent investigative report. You are right, there are too many unanswered questions and things that just don't make sense with the adoption of Ariel Sellers by the Kaluas. And everything hides under the veil of "protective" sealed documents. So much nonsense and political correctness. Are they hoping the Maui disaster will turn attention away from this fiasco that cost a little girl her life?Let's not let this happen.

ahhnow · 1 week ago

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