goes by without
Big Island police have
moved methodically in the
Lawmaker preplexedBy Christine Donnelly
Kema case differs from hanai
Peter "Peter Boy" Kema would be 8 years old today, assuming he's alive, which fewer people do these days.
It's been more than two years since he was last seen by the maternal grandparents who knew he had been abused since infancy and tried in vain to save him.
And more than a year has passed since the boy's father - under pressure to explain Peter Boy's long absence - told Big Island police he gave his son away in August 1997 to "Auntie Rose Makuakane," whose existence police have been unable to confirm.
No one has been charged with any crime. But one mainland expert says police were wise not to file a minor charge - such as child neglect - based on the father's version of events because that could prevent the filing of a more serious charge later.
"You don't want to create a double jeopardy situation by convicting on something far less serious like neglect or abandonment and then a few months later a body turns up," said Brian Holmgren, senior attorney for the Alexandria, Va.-based National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse.
"There may be very good reasons for being patient with this investigation, even though it's very frustrating and raises some skepticism about the police efforts," he said. But Holmgren noted that a lengthy probe does risk running out the statute of limitations on lesser charges.
Others worry that there have been no arrests - and may never be - because evidence was long gone by the time police began investigating in January 1998. The missing-person probe began months after relatives first alerted social workers that they were worried about the boy.
"If police and (Child Protective Services) had gotten on this quicker, there might be more physical evidence as to what happened," said state Rep. Dennis Arakaki (D, Kalihi), co-author of a current bill that would increase the penalties for child abuse. "I'm afraid he's met foul play and we'll never know the truth."
Big Island police last month turned a 9-inch-thick missing- person case report over to the Hawaii County prosecutor. "It's up there for them to decide whether there's anything else we need to do," said Capt. James Day, head of the Criminal Investigation Unit. He declined to describe the evidence or predict any arrests.
Michael Udovic, a Big Island deputy prosecutor who has reviewed the evidence, also declined to say much other than police had been "very thorough."
The child's parents, Jaylin and Peter Kema Sr., who live in Hilo, were never named as suspects and have denied harming their son. Neither is cooperating with police. Their lawyers could not be reached for comment.
Peter Boy's siblings have been removed from the Kema home. A 10-year-old half-sister and 12-year-old half-brother live in Kaneohe, their biological father - Jaylin Kema's former boyfriend - having won permanent custody. A full sister, age 6, remains in the foster care of relatives on the Big Island.
Meanwhile, James and Yolanda Acol of Kona, Peter Boy's maternal grandparents, will mark his birthday with cake, candles and inevitable thoughts of what might have been.
The Acols had taken care of Peter Boy starting in 1991 when he was 3 months old; he was removed from his parents' home then because he had a broken leg. The Acols wanted to keep him, but were overruled by the state, which returned him to the Kemas in 1995. The Acols last saw the brown-eyed boy in late 1996.
Yolanda Acol described the small ceremony planned at a Kona beach today as a chance "to say, 'We remember you, Peter Boy. We love you.' We'll give ourselves a little hope that someday, somehow, he will be with us again."
Giving away childrenBy Christine Donnelly
There ought to be a law against that! That was a common response when people heard a Big Island man claim to have given away his first-born son, a lawmaker recalls.
"I heard that a lot and felt it myself. I just couldn't see how a person could say he gave the child to someone and because of that there seems to be no accountability on the part of the parent," said state Rep. Dennis Arakaki (D, Kalihi Valley). "I wanted to do something."
But after hearing from child welfare advocates, law enforcement (including police and prosecutors), defense lawyers and Hawaiian cultural experts, the chairman of the House Human Services and Housing Committee decided not to address the problem this legislative session. Among the reasons pursuing a law was dropped:
Banning parents from giving away their children could interfere with Hawaii's hanai, or informal, adoptions or be misused, as by a spouse in a nasty divorce who might accuse an ex-partner of neglect for putting a child in day care. "The fear was it might make criminals out of a lot of law-abiding people," Arakaki said.
Doubts about Peter Kema Sr.'s claim that he gave his son to a woman in Aala Park in August 1997. Police have been unable to verify the woman's existence or find the boy. Kema, who made the claim in April 1998, has denied harming the child. "Some people ... question if he really gave the boy away. If he didn't, we'd be passing a law to cover something that never really happened," Arakaki said.
Although there is no law simply outlawing the giving away of children, laws against child endangerment, abandonment or neglect could be applicable. None carries a very harsh penalty, however.
Arakaki shifted his focus to beefing up laws so child abuse cases would be easier to prove and convicted abusers would be more harshly punished. A bill creating a new crime - felonious child abuse, which would cover reckless as well as intentional conduct that seriously injures a child - is expected to pass next week.
That comes on the heels of a law passed last session forcing the state's Child Protective Services system to emphasize child safety over family reunification when awarding custody of abused kids.
"There's no question that this state has made significant progress in the past few years," said Dennis Dunn, director of the Victim Witness Kokua Services, a division of the city prosecutor's office. Under old laws, someone could permanently injure a child "and essentially see no jail time. We hope that won't happen anymore."
Brian Holmgren, senior attorney for the Alexandria, Va.-based National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse, said Arakaki was wise not to push a special "Peter Boy" bill. "You don't draft laws to address isolated cases. When you do that you generally get bad laws," he said.
Moreover, Holmgren contended, giving a child away with no thought to his future welfare is already a crime in Hawaii, as it is everywhere else in the United States. "They could make some charge, like neglect or abandonment, if they had to," he said.
Still, sometimes Arakaki has second thoughts.
"I guess one of my fears remains that it might give people an idea that if they end up killing a child, all they have to do is get rid of the body and say they gave the child away," he said.
Forsaken-son case differsBy Christine Donnelly
from isles hanai tradition
Handing a child off to a virtual stranger and never seeing them again does not fit the native Hawaiian tradition of shared child-rearing, experts say.
"The thought that there would be no contact, that's wrong, that's not traditional hanai," said Malcolm Naea Chun, cultural specialist at the Queen Liliuokalani Children's Center, which benefits needy children.
"In Hawaiian society, the most important thing is to be in relationship with one another, to belong," he said. "No matter who raises you up, you always have a link to your (biological) mother and father."
A year ago, Peter Kema Sr., who lives in Hilo, claimed he gave his namesake son to a woman named "Auntie Rose Makuakane" at Honolulu's Aala Park in August 1997 because he was destitute and the woman could give the boy a better life.
He had said he does not know where the pair is now.
Police have been unable to prove the woman ever existed or find the boy, who was previously a victim of abuse.
But legal experts have said if it did happen as Kema claims it might be tough to charge him with any crime given Hawaii's long history of unofficial, or hanai, adoptions.
But Chun and others said what Kema claims he did should not be considered hanai care.
Traditional hanai means to give a child over to another blood relative to raise, with links to the natural parents through visits, family celebrations and other ties.
Even in a looser definition, which includes nonrelatives as caretakers, blood ties should not be severed, he said.
Hawaii law does not recognize hanai arrangements, nor does it outlaw them. The concepts were never officially sanctioned even under the Kingdom of Hawaii, Chun said.
"It was just something that families did, and continue to do, within themselves, without the interference of the government or other authority," he said.