Saturday, January 08, 2011


Has Hawaii’s Department of Human Services changed its dangerous priority on family reunification in abuse cases?

by Larry Geller

Friday’s Star-Advertiser editorial and an article on foster care shortfalls earlier this week should raise some concerns over whether the state Department of Human Services and its previous director Lillian Koller  continued to place family reunification above concerns for the safety of the children. That would be in violation of both state and federal law.

There’s not enough information in the newspaper to draw any conclusions, but enough that an investigation is called for, given the history of DHS and the findings of two audits.

Both articles focused on a shortage of families willing to apply for licenses to take in foster children. At the same time, there is this in the news article:

While more resource families are still needed, the number of foster children has dropped dramatically — from nearly 4,000 six years ago — primarily through DHS' emphasis on working with parents so they can be reunited with their children in foster care.   [Star-Advertiser, Foster families in decline, 1/2/2011]

And this in the editorial:

Foster children are dropping in number because the state has been working to send many of them home to their biological parents. But even when that ideal is possible, there is usually lag time before parents are equipped to take them. Foster parents provide the safety net to fill that gap.   [Star-Advertiser, Be the rock for a child in need, 1/7/2011]

There is a concern, of course for permanence, which may include family reunification, but that is secondary to safety. Historically, almost three-quarters of families fail to comply with social worker’s service plans. While it is possible that new efforts by DHS have increased compliance, the newspaper articles do not contain the detail necessary to understand if that is the case. It may be that one more audit is necessary to see if DHS has improved its dismal record as recorded in prior audits.

I wrote in an earlier article (Is DHS still prioritizing family reunification over child safety? (7/19/2007):

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.

A 2003 federal review of Hawaii’s child welfare system included these findings related to child safety, as reported by the Star-Bulletin:

>> The state does not provide enough resources to train foster parents, sometimes placing foster children with families even before the families receive training.

>> Victims of child abuse are sometimes returned to their families too soon, resulting in repeated abuse.
[Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Isles’ child services overloaded, 7/19/2003]

As a result of the federal review, Hawaii is required to participate in a Program Improvement Plan with progress to be reviewed by the feds.

The follow-up audit by the legislative auditor found that DHS was ignoring non-compliance with service plans, which could result in repeated abuse when the child is reunified with the family:

Permanency plans set forth as a goal the adoption, guardianship, or permanent custody of a child. The federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 reduced the timeframe for permanency planning from 18 to 12 months in recognition that child safety is sometimes jeopardized by family reunification goals. The state Child Protective Act also requires permanency planning for any child residing outside a family home for 12 consecutive months, unless the child’s family can convince the court otherwise.

Although planning for permanency must begin by the twelfth month of out-of-home care, we found that nearly half the cases we reviewed did not meet the 12-month deadline. In addition, a family’s inability to follow through with service plans—for whatever reason—was too often disregarded in decision-making …   [Follow-Up Audit of the Child Protective Services, 2003]

The audit found that a surprisingly high percentage of families were not in compliance with service plans, meaning that a permanency hearing should have been held within 12 months. When a family does not fulfill the terms of its service plan, the child will most likely be placed elsewhere. But this was not happening.

In our statewide review, 73 percent (36 of 49) of cases had families that were deemed by social workers as noncompliant with service plans. In 42 percent (15 of 36) of these cases, the department did not file a motion for custody. In one case, five similar service plans were offered to a family over 18 months. The family failed to comply with each service plan. In addition, 43 percent (21 of 49) of the cases we reviewed were both noncompliant with service plans and late in permanency planning.

The audit found, in its conclusions:

The agency continues to disregard a family’s noncompliance of service plans in decisions regarding permanency planning.

All that is history, of course, but how have things changed?

In her 9/5/2007 appearance on the Honolulu Advertiser’s “hot seat” blog, DHS Director Lillian Koller ducked questions on her preference for family reunification:

I realize what a daunting task DHS must have but is there anything being done to continue to monitor the children who have been abused or neglected? It's a real travesty when children are returned to unsafe homes.

What is being done now to make sure homes are safe for children to return to?
I am a foster mother and have a specific child I have A LOT of safety concerns about the reunification. The department jut says we have to let the parents try...but why does it have to be at the childs expense???????????

I still dont believe you have answered the question regarding reunification from Brad McClintock and Lisa, Corrina Tancrede, and now also myself. Why in the world do you rip apart the only stable relationships most of these kids have ever known or may ever know with their current foster families to reunify with other relatives? I know for a fact that you actively recruit and waste the state's money trying to get these other relatives to step up and take the kids. Please answer! Why reunification AT ALL COST!!!??? What about the KIDS????

Given the history, we need to know if and how DHS’ priorities have changed.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons license.


Very interesting. I believe (hope?) that one of the reasons for the drop in number of kids needing foster care is that DHS and the Courts are trying harder to make immediate changes in an unsafe family situation. Previously (back in the 1990s), DHS was very slow/inefficient at motivating the families to complete their service kids went immediately to foster care and languished there for years.... With the newer emphasis on time limits for family reunification, I think parents are more motivated to get the help they need (drug treatment, therapy, parenting classes).
But for the childrens' sake, we certainly should be looking into this. It's a community responsibility to keep kids safe; let's not leave it up to some govt agency!

As with anything else Ms. Kohler did, or failed to do, while DHS Director, at bottom it was always - ALWAYS - the redirection of funds allocated for one purpose (eg. cildren living in poverty, the disabled, the homeless), to another destination - most often to line the pockets of right wing consultant groups from the mainland, who absolutely feasted on the backs of the poor, and the Hawaii taxpayer.

Remember Ronela Pascual? She still is in a nursing home in Ewa Beach. We tried to send her a teddy bear last year we got it back. DHS says she does not exist. She was returned after being with us for three years even her name has disappeared from the DHS website. We know she spends her day without even getting visits from her family. Ohau is a very small island people vent their frustrations! We are ready and have been ready to adopt her and her room has been waiting for her for over three years.

I just checked, and you are correct, the information has disappeared from the DHS website.

May I ask how you are able to get current information? Please email from "Larry" link below.

Oops... that may not work. Please try larry [at] gmail [dot] com

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