Bill will fund 4 additional Child Welfare Services case workers for East Hawaii

  • SAN BUENAVENTURA
  • O'CONNELL

A state House-Senate conference committee on Wednesday unanimously passed a bill that will establish a five-year pilot program to fund four more full-time Child Welfare Services case workers in East Hawaii.

The measure, introduced by Rep. Chris Todd, a Hilo Democrat, with Reps. Joy San Buenaventura and Mark Nakashima, Democrats from Puna and Hamakua, respectively, also signing on, will provide $320,000 annually to fund salaries and benefits for the four positions, Todd said. It also will require the state Department of Human Services to report to the Legislature within 20 days of the beginning of next year’s session.

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“We need to get updates on the caseload per social worker and total cases. And then, we can act appropriately next session,” Todd said. “We’ve heard from the East Hawaii guys at the Child Welfare Services branch that they feel confident they can fill these positions.”

Todd, who has three foster brothers who’ll soon graduate from college, added he’s “99 percent” certain the bill will be signed into law by Gov. David Ige.

The legislation notes the East Hawaii Child Welfare Services section “is responsible for the welfare of endangered children in a vast geographic area that extends from Honokaa to Ocean View,” including Hilo, Puna and much of Hamakua and Ka‘u.

“This is an area approximately the size of all of the other Hawaiian Islands combined,” it states.

According to the bill, the rate of confirmed cases of abuse and neglect in the service area in 2015 was 213 children per 100,000 residents, “nearly triple the rate” of Oahu. It also stated that, in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008, layoffs and hiring restrictions “caused the East Hawaii Child Welfare Services section to lose 19 of the 56 positions it had in 2009.”

According written testimony by Joseph O’Connell of East Hawaii Friends of Foster Families, who shepherded what he called a “grassroots effort” to create the legislation, “Child Welfare League of America recommends social workers carry a caseload of no more than 12-15 children. Currently East Hawaii workers carry an average of 40.”

The bill as it was originally written called for a cap of 20 children per case worker.

“We realize that, at the last minute, we have, like, $120 million soaked up (for disaster relief) by Kauai, which of course, they needed, and we realize this is the first year we’ve approached the (Legislature) asking for anything, and only about seven percent of bills survive. With all that in mind, we’re really happy with the results,” said O’Connell, a private nonprofit social worker who grew up in foster care on the Big Island and is now a foster parent.

“What we wanted, really, more importantly than the positions, is the accountability and the legislative intervention, and we got that. They’re going to be required to submit annual reports. It’s a five-year pilot project. So we hope that this is a foot in the door. And our greater hope is that we will get the cap in place someday and it will be implemented statewide.”

San Buenaventura, who Todd credited for her role in writing the bill, praised O’Connell for coming up with the idea of a pilot study.

“By making it a pilot study for East Hawaii only, it highlighted the problems of the system, which is doing its best,” San Buenaventura said. “Percentage-wise, per capita, in East Hawaii, we have a high rate of child abuse cases. And they’re thinking it’s because the system is stretched thin. And it’s stretched thin because the Legislature and the administrators … don’t realize the geographic distance between Ka‘u and Honokaa. It takes a four-hour round-trip and (caseworkers) still have to come back to Hilo to do paperwork for the one case study.”

Extreme abuse cases in East Hawaii include Peter Kema Jr., aka “Peter Boy,” a 6-year-old boy who died of septic shock due to abuse in 1997 and whose body was discarded by his father, now serving 20 years for manslaughter; Shaelynn Lehano-Stone, a 9-year-old home-schooled Hilo girl who died in 2016, allegedly of starvation, and whose parents and maternal grandmother face murder charges; and “Alexis,” a 10-year-old Puna girl starved and tortured in 2005 while in the care of Hyacinth Poouahi, a friend of the girl’s mother. Alexis survived, but is permanently disabled, while Poouahi is serving a 20-year prison term.

“I really gotta hand it to the advocates like Joseph O’Connell who highlighted the problem and made it front page in Honolulu,” San Buenaventura said. “Just because you hear of these cases separately, you don’t see the systemic problem until he started putting it together and made it easy for Honolulu to understand the problem in East Hawaii.”

Sen. Josh Green, a Kona Democrat and emergency room physician who was the Senate chairman of the conference committee, said the bill, when it becomes law, “will make a big difference in helping kids that are in crisis.”

“It could cut in half the caseload for some, and I think it will decrease by the dozens the number of worrisome outcomes that occur in the region,” Green said. “And it may very well help us avoid one or two of the catastrophes like we’ve seen. This is really a bill that could save lives.

“… As a doc, I’ve treated some children in circumstances where they’ve been abused or neglected. And I always wondered if I was sending them back into a safe setting. So this gives me, as a doctor, kind of a sense of satisfaction that our kids will be better taken care of.”

O’Connell referred to failing reviews of CWS by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2009 and 2017. The federal reviews found the state agency not in substantial conformity with any of the seven categories it evaluated, including quality assurance and foster parent licensing, recruitment and retention.

“We’re one of 15 states in the nation that completely failed it twice,” he said. “And this is the only bill that was in front of the Legislature this session aimed at making things better, so that we don’t completely fail the next federal review and so we don’t jeopardize our federal funds, either, because you have to remain in compliance to be eligible for those funds.”

State DHS spokeswoman Ke‘opu Reelitz said in an email that the agency hasn’t seen a copy of the bill’s conference draft, but added the department has been working with the Department of Human Resources Development and the Hawaii Government Employees Association “to improve hiring processes and retention” and “shorten the amount of time it takes for us to hire specific positions.”

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”We have appreciated the opportunity to work with the state Legislature, the community, other agencies, HGEA and staff to improve Child Welfare Services,” Reelitz said. “We are committed to improving the Department of Human Services and how we serve our communities. We believe this bill allows us to explore collaborative and new ways to support our staff and, in turn, the children of Hawaii.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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