Thursday, July 19, 2007


Is DHS still prioritizing family reunification over child safety?

The Advertiser's July 17, 2007 story, Hawaii law doesn't require follow-up on child abuse cases, raises critical questions that deserve comment from the Department of Human Services. We need to ask whether DHS workers are still placing priority on family reunification over the safety of the child, and what their practice is for followup even if the law does not now specify that it is necessary. A Hawaii judge has expressed a different view of the state's responsibility.

Ruthann Quitiquit, identified in the story as a former investigator for the state Department of Human Services, asked:
"Why did they return this child to this family seven years ago? Only the judge and the worker (child welfare worker on the case) can tell you that, but it's a hard job and the push from the government is to reunify the child with their parents."
The 1997 Federal Adoption and Safe Families Act required DHS to give children's safety precedence over family reunification. Hawaii that same year passed Act 134 which reaffirms that the safety and best interest of the children involved in child protective proceedings are to be viewed as paramount in any family reunification plan.

So at the time the 5-year-old girl was returned to her parents in February, 2000, CPS should have based its actions in the case not on a "push" for family reunification but first on consideration of what was in the best interests of the child.

The Advertiser (September 3, 2004) reported Circuit Judge Victoria Marks' decision that the state can be held accountable for the claim that it was negligent in the Reubyne Buentipo, Jr case. The lawsuit claimed that CPS did not adequately follow up on reports that his mother was abusing him after he was returned to her. Disturbingly, the article also reported that Lillian Koller, DHS director, insisted her department "must have the immunity to fulfill a federal mandate of trying to preserve the family."

Judge Marks held also that the state's responsibility to protect the boy continued even after Reubyne was returned to his mother.

Is this an issue only in the few cases that break into the news? No. 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.

We need clarification from DHS on whether the above statement, "the push from the government is to reunify the child with their parents" is accurate. The reason family reunification is not a priority by law is quite clear: it results in too many dead children. CPS workers must be absolutely clear on that.

Is there evidence that Hawaii's children are better protected today? Let's have that also.


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