Sunday, July 29, 2007


DHS defense in child starvation case falls far short

Decisions made in 2000 by Child Protective Services in the Wright case should be carefully scrutinized. If for no other reason, we want to be sure that any mistakes made are unlikely to be repeated.

Perhaps the choice to return the 5-year-old girl to her family made sense to CPS workers in 2000. On the other hand, perhaps they were under pressure to "reunify the family" and felt that their job was done once they accomplished that.

But reports that neighbors told police the girl was locked in her room for 12 hours a day without food, water or bathroom access raise important questions about why there was never a followup by CPS.

This key question was left unanswered in a self-serving article in Sunday's Honolulu Advertiser by DHS director Lillian Koller. The article seems designed to deflect criticism from her department at a time when she should be taking responsibility for making changes to reduce the possibility that similar cases may slip through in the future. After all, Koller is off the hook on the 2000 events--they took place on her predecessor's watch. She hangs herself by defending possible errors committed at that time. Of course, we have not seen the records she has reviewed. It's easy to be critical. But let's face it--so was the state auditor. As I wrote in my post Is DHS still prioritizing family reunification over child safety?:

A 1999 legislative audit concluded that "DHS and Family Court emphasis on family reunification exceeds federal requirements." The report described situations where "child safety is often displaced at the expense of efforts focused on reunification with and rehabilitation of parents who refuse services." A 2003 follow-up audit found that "fully half of CPS cases failed to meet the requirements of the federal law and that child safety is sometimes jeopardized by family reunification goals."

We need to know that now, if not in 2000, 2003 or 2004, there is no confusion on the part of CPS workers as to their priorities. We also need to resolve, for this and future cases, whether DHS recognizes its responsibility to protect the child even after return to the family.

Koller's statistic showing a favorable number for January-March 2007, while encouraging, proves nothing:

Selective use of statistics

Virtually any time an argument relies on statistics or facts, the arguer chooses statistics and facts which verify his/her claims while ignoring those which contradict or undermine his/her argument. This is human nature. It is the duty of the listener to decide whether an out-of-context number or sentence is representative of the whole story. Any argument can be made by using data selectively [Emphasis added].

The single statistic does not answer the question of why there was no CPS followup after the 2000 incident nor does it counter the conclusions of the state auditor that DHS has placed family reunification as a priority above the well-being of the child.

Koller's proposal to expand the mandatory reporting law (HRS 350-1) is no solution. She is certainly aware that this law is seldom if ever enforced. In the absence of prosecution, the law is completely toothless. Including family members as mandated reporters won't solve DHS's problem, and is bad policy for the reasons given towards the end of the Advertiser article by former state representative Dennis Arakaki.

As an advocate for Felix children I noticed that school personnel regularly ignored their responsibility to report alleged abuse that they observed. Calls to the city prosecutor's office or the police about prosecution under HRS 350 did not even merit a return call. It can't be too far off to say that someone's chances of being held responsible under this law must be comparable to the risk of being arrested for tailgating on the H‑1.

The mandatory reporting law should be an important tool for the reduction of child abuse in Hawaii, but it will take some special action to ensure that it is enforced.

DHS cannot pass its responsibility over to the legislature by calling for a tougher reporting law--particularly if the record shows that a neighbor's claim that there were indeed multiple reports proves accurate. From the Sunday article:

Nicole Jordan, one of the Wrights' neighbors who in 2000 called police after hearing "wild screaming" from the apartment for more than six months, said Friday she was shocked the child was returned to the Wrights within 72 hours.

She said she and other neighbors called police at least six times to complain of the screaming before officers came and found the child in January 2000.

Returning the abused girl to her family may or may not have been the right thing to have done in 2000, but Koller's task in 2007 is to demonstrate that the lack of followup which led to the current tragedy has been adequately addressed.

Child abuse continues to plague society, and DHS must respond appropriately and responsibly in each future case. While the parents will be tried in court, Koller needs to demonstrate to the rest of us that her department has made the necessary corrections. If not, perhaps legislators should consider a further followup audit..


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