Tuesday, November 27, 2001

Child abuse in Hawaii

Defenders urge
tougher laws

Pornography is the only
specific child crime more
serious than a misdemeanor

Drug purity fuels catastrophes

Last of three parts
Part One | Part Two

By Helen Altonn

Penalties should be tougher for people who hurt children, say prosecutors and police who deal with abuse cases.

Glenn Kim, who heads the domestic violence unit in the Honolulu prosecutor's office, says the only Hawaii laws that deal specifically with child abuse concern pornography.

All other child abuse cases fall under the "abuse of household member" law, a misdemeanor, said Kim, who has seven deputies working on misdemeanor cases.

"It's crystal clear to me, the state should have some laws on the books specifically to protect children from abuse, and all we have on the books are these pornography statutes," Kim said.

"They (children) clearly and obviously are a special class and should be treated as such."

The Office of the Public Defender argues that the present laws are adequate, and it opposed a bill sent two years ago to Gov. Ben Cayetano from the Legislature to increase penalties. Cayetano vetoed it.

Deputy Public Defender Ronette Kawakami said the current law on assault in the first degree applies to any person who causes serious bodily injury. "It doesn't matter if it's a child, adult or senior citizen. It would be a Class B felony."

The law also provides for enhanced sentencing for special classes of people, such as the frail and young, she said.

Kawakami said her office was concerned that the bill to raise child abuse penalties could cause more problems. For instance, she said, when there are two kinds of offenses with the same elements, the statute with the lower penalty must be charged, she said.

"So it doesn't make sense to make special laws for children. It is kind of a complicated thing. ... It would make it harder for them in some ways."

The difficulty is that the present sentencing law applies only if there is serious bodily injury, the prosecutors point out.

"In the legislative scheme, sexual assault is not considered a physical assault," said Thalia Murphy, chief of the prosecutor's sex assault unit, who advocates increased penalties with mandatory minimum sentences for sexual offenses of very young children.

"The court orders a mandatory minimum when there is substantial or serious bodily injury. There is none for plain old sexual assault of a child."

It is up to the Hawaii Paroling Authority to set a minimum sentence for someone who sexually assaults a child, she said, "and it does a fine job."

Lt. Evan Ching, who heads a special Honolulu Police Department unit on child physical abuse and neglect, would like to see greater sanctions for mothers who use drugs when they are pregnant.

"We have a lot of cases where hospitals report to us the mother tested positive for drugs at the time of birth," he said. "We already know the child is behind everyone else in development and everything. ... That hurts us the most because the cycle just keeps on continuing.

"We're not going to solve a case by throwing an unwed 16-year-old mother in jail," Ching said. "We need to find ways to make these guys make better choices. ... Within our own unit, we talk about the problem. We're helpless. We cannot act on it criminally."

State Human Services Director Susan Chandler said she sees family violence as a family issue, "and the best way to reduce it is to provide support to families to strengthen communities."

She is not convinced that tougher laws would serve as a deterrent "because I think losing your child is a pretty horrible deterrent already if the department takes a child away from a family."

The Child Welfare League of America also has found in national studies that there is not much correlation between laws and child abuse and neglect, she said. "Most people believe the best way to prevent and reduce is to push services way up earlier and help families."

For those charged with prosecuting offenders, however, Kim said there is a big difference between cases serious enough to be classified as felonies and others. "We had a case where a father broke both legs of a kid, and all we could do is charge second degree, five years. The jury only convicted him of third degree."

Defendants in several homicide cases in the last two or three years were convicted of manslaughter, not murder, he said.

"It's just so hard for people to believe people do these things to children. It happens all the time, and they should be held to account. I don't care if they are parents."

Kim favors jacking up penalties and adding "reckless" to "state of mind." Assault in the first degree requires that it be done "intentionally or knowingly," he said. "We've got to prove a person intended to do this to the other person."

A shaken-baby case where the baby does not die but suffers a major brain injury probably would be assault in the first degree, a Class B felony with a maximum sentence of 10 years, he said. But it has to be "intentionally or knowingly."

If state of mind included "reckless," and someone injured a kid seriously and said, "I didn't mean it," it should be enough that they did something an adult should not be doing, Kim said. He proposes making recklessly injuring a child a Class A felony with a 20-year prison term.

The "silver lining in the clouds" is increased awareness and willingness of people to report abuse and neglect, Kim said.

Ching said his unit had 253 cases in August, compared with 152 for that month a year ago, and 99 percent of neglect cases are drug-related.

"Before, we used to get a break when kids were in school because most mandated reporting is from teachers," he said. That changed with year-round classes, he said.

People under the influence of drugs totally neglect their kids and treat them "like objects," he said. "They don't have a clue what they're doing.

"It's common for a parent to drop a child off at the grandparent and go for milk and never return, and grandparents are stuck. They can't seek medical services for the child because they're not authorized. That's the frustrating part."

Ching said police follow up on all the cases and encourage parents to cooperate with Child Protective Services if they want to keep the child.

"The bottom line is the safety of the child."

In this series


>> Officials fear stress from increased unemployment and the Sept. 11 attacks will lead to increased child abuse.

>> New Family Court program targets drug problems.

>> An emotional, personal tale of abuse.


>> The Children's Justice Centers aid coordination -- and aim to change young lives for the better.

>> Child-abuse injuries are going undetected due to lack of training.

Unusually pure
crystal meth fuels

By Helen Altonn

Use of crystal methamphetamine, or "ice," is the underpinning for "a whole constellation of problems" in Hawaii, including crime, child neglect and abuse, says an authority on substance abuse.

Dr. Richard Rawson of the University of California-Los Angeles Department of Psychiatry is involved in several drug research projects in Honolulu.

Discussing Hawaii's situation in a telephone interview, he said it is "somewhat unique and different than the rest of the United States" because the form used here is not found in most other states.

"The purity of the drug in Hawaii seems to be much higher," he said, and those who smoke it "tend to see more psychoses and variety of psychiatric and medical problems than with other forms of methamphetamine use."

Hawaii's high hepatitis rates also may be associated with the drug use, he said.

Rawson is working with University of Hawaii, St. Francis, Queen's and Kapiolani Medical Center researchers on behavioral and treatment programs for methamphetamine users.

Another project anticipated at UH is to look at effects of ice on the fetus when taken by pregnant women, he said.

He said the Hawaii researchers have hopes of obtaining additional grants to study the drug's effects on children and a history of how methamphetamine use by parents affects kids.

"We have much anecdotal information suggesting methamphetamine and violence are more connected than other kinds of drug use, and particularly that's the case having to do with domestic violence and violence or neglect of children," Rawson said. "Half of methamphetamine users nationally are women."

Rawson said UCLA is "kind of a hub" in methamphetamine research for federal agencies. His role is to help coordinate research projects on methamphetamine because "they don't have much of a sense of what the turf is. ... There is none to speak of in the eastern United States.

"California and Hawaii are the two places that got bad the earliest, in the late 1980s and early 1990s," he said.

Because of the severity of the problem in Hawaii, he said, federal agencies felt it was important to get resources in the islands and connection to big federal projects. "We have been able to find excellent colleagues to work with."

"We keep waiting for Hawaii's methamphetamine epidemic to show signs of getting better," Rawson said. Unfortunately, he said, information "shows it continues to flourish. Availability and purity are high. ... In general, the situation of Hawaii is of concern."

It is not being neglected, he added, noting a big conference was held here a few years ago, and a lot of training was done. "But it's a tough problem to cut off."

The research team met in July to discuss how to get more money into Hawaii for additional research and services, he said.

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