Case 1: Six-year-old Ariel Sellers is abducted from her home by child protection services. Relatives are willing to take Ariel in, but they say CWS is ignoring them. Instead, Ariel is placed with strangers, Isaac and Lehua Kalua. Eventually, they adopt her and change her name to Isabella.
Now the Kaluas are framed for Isabella’s murder. She is said to have died trapped in a dog crate with duct tape covering her mouth and nose. CWS still refuses to place his siblings with relatives.
Case 2: Bella is in her fifth grade class when suddenly she is told that her father has come to pick her up from school. But the man is not the man she considers her father – rather, he is a man she barely knows – indeed, a court order prohibits contact.
But that doesn’t stop CWS. In what a judge would call a “grab and go,” CWS takes Bella across the state and leaves her with the father she barely knows.
None of these cases are the result of a lack of money or personnel for the SCF. Rather, they demonstrate how children are harmed when an agency that operates in near absolute secrecy is given near absolute power over some of the most powerless members of our society, extremely poor families and, in Hawaii, disproportionately mixed race or Pacific Islander.
Yet time and time again, the “solutions” offered by state lawmakers are to make this agency even more powerful by making it bigger. It’s like seeing a wildfire out of control and deciding the best answer is more gas.
So rep Sylvia Luke is practically asking that CWS ask for more money to hire 48 more people, apparently on the theory that one of them would have checked more carefully before grabbing Bella and leaving.
But as Civil Beat reports, 85% of the time when CWS wants to snatch a child from everyone they know and love, they don’t even bother to ask a judge first – they just “take and leave”. It’s not because nobody checks, it’s because nobody wants to check.
The theory, of course, is that the CFS has to grab and go because sometimes a child is in imminent danger. Sometimes it’s true. But 77% of children taken from their parents in Hawaii are taken because of allegations of “neglect”. Sometimes it can be extremely serious. More often than not, neglect is a euphemism for poverty.
Hawaii ‘An Outlier’
Hawaii is already abducting children from a 35% higher rate the national average, even when child poverty rates are taken into account. Expanding the SCF by 48 people will only make the state even more aberrant.
Even as she called for more positions to be added to the CWS, Luke and his colleagues refused to fund planning for a new prison. Why? Because, Luke explained, many of those who are imprisoned are only there because they cannot post bail.
“You basically put people in jail because they’re poor,” she said. So at the same meeting, Rep. Luke refused to spend more on imprisoning people because they are poor while demanding that the state spend more on kidnapping children – who are often taken away because they are poor. .
Hawaii’s take-out approach makes all children less safe. In addition to the enormous emotional trauma inflicted on children taken away unnecessarily, there is a high risk of abuse in the foster families themselves.
Of course, most adoptive parents don’t end up being framed for murder like the Kaluas. Corn study after study finds abuse in a quarter to a third of foster homes, and the rate in group homes and institutions is even worse.
But you can’t solve that problem by doing something other than some lawmakers have proposed: making foster parents who adopt second-class parents subject to government scrutiny even after the adoption is finalized. Then they are simply foster parents under another name.
Instead, Hawaii needs to stop confusing poverty with neglect, and wring out the grabbing mentality of CWS. This will give workers more time to screen potential foster parents before children are placed.
The CFS must be understood for what it is: a police force.
And, with fewer abducted children, the CFS won’t have to lower standards for foster parents or be tempted to ignore signs of abuse in foster homes. It will also free up time for workers to investigate each case more carefully, so they are more likely to find the few children in real danger.
Lawmakers should take the money meant to boost CWS staff and put it into concrete help to improve the worst aspects of poverty — things like childcare subsidies and housing assistance.
Then provide families with a high quality defense attorney, so they can fight for whatever they need to keep their children safe. Where this has been tried, time spent in foster care has decreased significantly, with no compromise on safety.
More importantly, the CFS must be understood for what it is: a police force. They are the police of the family and, like any other police force, they must be held accountable for how they use their power.