Monday, May 19, 2014


New lawsuit in death of 4-year-old Maui boy raises old questions about DHS mishandling of abuse cases

“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.”—from a 2007 article, Hawaii law doesn't require follow-up on child abuse cases (Honolulu Advertiser, 7/17/2007

by Larry Geller


An AP story today, Grandmother sues state for death of Maui boy, 4 (FindLaw, 5/19/2014), revives concern over whether Hawaii’s Department of Human Services made a deadly mistake in returning little  Zion McKeown to his father and his father’s girlfriend—both of whom are now facing second-degree murder charges over his abuse and death.

I believe that the first op-ed I ever submitted to a newspaper was this article in 1997 [I can’t believe how I overused the passive voice…]. At that time, questions about DHS’s handling of a case leading to a child’s death in Hawaii resembled a contemporary situation in Vancouver—except that outrage in Canada led to an investigation and total overhaul of the British Columbia child welfare system.

Of course, we’ll not know whether DHS actions in returning the Maui boy to his family were appropriate or not until the trial wraps up. Still, the story sent shivers up my spine, because the question of whether DHS social workers (who were not, at the time I wrote the articles, not actually credentialed social workers at all) has echoed repeatedly on Disappeared News.

Under both federal law and state law, the primary consideration that Child Protective Service teams are to apply is safety of the child, but even after the two laws were passed, I witnessed Hawaii CPS teams openly stating that reunification of the family was their first objective. That’s wrong, illegal, and can be deadly.

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."

[Is DHS still prioritizing family reunification over child safety?, 7/19/2007]

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 recently as 2011, there was still cause for concern:

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] [link may not work]

When then DHS director Lillian Koller was on the Honolulu Advertiser’s Hot Seat blog taking questions, she ducked answering on family reunification questions. One frustrated questioner ended with:

Why reunification AT ALL COST!!!??? What about the KIDS????

[Has Hawaii’s Department of Human Services changed its dangerous priority on family reunification in abuse cases?, 1/8/2011]

Aside from news reports, I had the personal experience of having to read the state law to a CPS team at a case conference with the parents—the team leader stated that their primary objective was to reunite the family, so I pulled out my copy of the law and read it to them. Safety of the child was the number one priority, not family reunification.

The meeting was adjourned, and though I was (at the time) case manager for the special needs child, I was not asked to attend any subsequent conferences that may have been held.

Again, there is no determination of state wrongdoing in this new lawsuit until the judge pounds the final gavel, but given DHS’ history, we might find reason to be concerned and to follow the Zion McKeown case closely.


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