Saturday, November 22, 2008


Latest abuse case raises questions about the Department of Human Services

by Larry Geller

The two Honolulu papers reported today on the Makekau abuse case, but one story omits some crucial information. The Advertiser story is Abused Hawaii children 'angry' that aunt's sentence only 5 years and the Star-Bulletin’s is Child abuser is freed for appeal.

Yes, Rita Makekau was sentenced to only five years, and yes, she is free until at least December 22 while an appeal is prepared. After five years she could be back in her home.

It’s easy to be an armchair judge and question whatever motivated the court to impose a five-year sentence, but look at the evidence before us as presented by the newspapers. Here’s a snippet from the Advertiser story:

Victims describe abuse

Three of the children were present in court, and a social worker read statements from them in which they recounted horrific details of their treatment at the hands of their relatives.

Makekau used a hammer to break and chip their teeth when they misbehaved. She struck them on their heads with knives and metal spoons, causing bleeding and permanent scarring.

The children said they sometimes went without food for a week, and one had been forced to sleep under the house with dogs and insects and without warm clothes or bedding as punishment for misbehavior.

From the Star-Bulletin story:

They allege that Makekau shoved a broomstick down their throats, held them underwater in the bathtub, pushed them down the stairs and held their hands over flames from the stove.

Makekau was the aunt, but the children were abused also by the parents:

[Deputy Prosecutor Lori] Wada said Makekau was "the worst offender," but alleged that Gabriel Kalama beat one child with a belt "for jumping on a bed" and forced another to eat a sibling's feces.

Barbara Kalama, 28, pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree child endangerment and six counts of abuse of a family member.

There’s more if you read the full articles. I’ll bet it was much worse than the papers can print. You be the judge. Child abuse concerns all of us.

Aside from what happened to these children, we should question why the other family children were allowed by DHS to remain with these parents.

That’s the key difference in the stories. The Advertiser story not only has more detail, but includes this report:

Court records show the Kalamas have four children of their own and are raising a fifth child Barbara Kalama had by a previous relationship. Those children were taken into foster care for a day when the Kalamas were first arrested, but were returned because the couple had no history of abuse or neglect of their own children, state officials said.

The Kalamas' biological children remained with them, and the couple agreed to accept state services and state monitoring of the family until the case was closed on June 9, 2008, according to the Department of Human Services.

Ok, so there are still children remaining in that family. Can that be ok? If you are still unconvinced, here’s just one more account, from a KHON story of August 13, 2008, of how the others were treated:

Like the time one of the kids got caught shooting off fireworks.

Deputy Prosecutor, Lori Wada describes the event,"as a result he taped hands together, holding the fireworks, then set the fireworks off in hands, causing pain and burns."

Given the parenting practices of the father and mother, how can we be sure that the remaining five children are safe? Is it ok to close this case? Is monitoring of these children really over? What happens when the unrepentant auntie returns to this family in just a few years?

I’m concerned because Hawaii’s DHS seems to give family reunification a high priority while both state and federal law require that child safety be given top priority. This is also common sense. Why? To do otherwise results in too many dead children.

In July, 2007, in Is DHS still prioritizing family reunification over child safety? I wrote about the state’s continuing obligations to protect the children involved in an abuse case:

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."

In another article later that month, DHS defense in child starvation case falls far short, I described how DHS director Lillian Koller attempted to pass responsibility for shortcomings in her department’s procedures on to the Legislature.

It’s high time for another audit. Child abuse is a problem that will continue to plague society, but our response must always be to protect the safety of children. Has DHS changed its ways, or is it still pushing children back into families where they are not safe?

I would be very sad if there were another abuse headline in the future asking why any children were allowed to stay with this family. Is monitoring really over, or does it continue? Instead of waiting, we need to ask Lillian Koller those questions right now. And let’s crank up one more audit, it seems justified to me.


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