Whenever he gives a talk, Family Court Judge R. Mark Browning tries to bring up a subject dear to his heart: reuniting siblings who are placed in separate foster homes.
FOSTER CARE PROGRAM WORKSProgram rebuilds
family bonds of
Project Visitation offers joint» Volunteers spend time with separated children
activities for children separated
in the foster care system
» Isle children need foster care and help
By Helen Altonn
"I felt my job was to call attention to the plight of foster kids and talk about it," said Browning, the driving force behind Project Visitation, a program that brings together separated foster siblings for regular outings.
The program, a joint effort by state and private agencies, enables separated siblings to spend time together at least once a month.
These children "are sometimes forgotten by our community," Browning said.
They come from abusive and neglectful parents; and when they are placed in foster care, they often are removed from their brothers and sisters, especially if the families are large.
"It is very difficult for children placed in foster care. It doesn't matter if they are abused, they still love their families," he said.
"In foster care, they routinely are not seeing each other for months or years. In my way of thinking, it's systemic abuse. The only love and care left in many instances is from siblings."
The problem of separated foster children has been discussed for years at judges conferences and Family Court symposiums, Browning said.
Judges can order visitations, but historically there have been too many foster children and not enough resources for the visits, he said.
The state Department of Human Services tries to find foster homes able to take siblings together, but that is a difficult task, especially when there are several siblings.
Two years ago, Browning, advocates, social workers and others came up with a solution enlisting volunteers to help arrange for sibling visits.
Project Visitation is "amazingly simple," said Annabel Murray, coordinator at Na Keiki Law Center of Volunteer Legal Services Hawaii, a participating agency.
Social workers refer cases of separated foster siblings to the program, and volunteers are trained to work with them.
Two volunteers usually work with one sibling group, especially when the children live in different parts of the island.
"A lot of driving goes on," Murray said, with the volunteers taking the children to movies or a park.
"We want kids to have an opportunity to interact with each other. We don't worry too much about the event so long as they have contact with each other," Murray said.
The Human Services Department "has kept the level of bureaucracy to an absolute minimum to allow this to go forward," Murray said. The department helps by loaning its eight-passenger vans for the visits.
The project now has 68 volunteers and 31 sibling groups with 128 children. Three families are waiting for volunteer services.
Hawaii has about 2,500 kids in foster care on any given day, while a total of 4,370 children were in foster care in the past year, officials said.
It is not known how many siblings are separated in foster care in Hawaii, but national statistics estimate the number at 75 percent.
Kelly Otake, both coordinator of Project Visitation and a volunteer with two sibling groups, assigns volunteers and follows up on the visits. She also plans a monthly party event for all volunteers and siblings.
Volunteers basically determine the children they want to work with so they feel comfortable, Otake said.
Sarah Caskin, Hawaii Foster Parent Association president, said the project "certainly is cutting-edge in terms of what's happening across the nation and what research shows about the importance of the sibling relationship."
Project Visitation "started on a shoestring budget," said Amy Tsark, Child Welfare Services administrator.
Browning has been a relentless advocate and champion, making hundreds of speeches and showing up for all the volunteer training sessions, Tsark said. "It is such a model public-private collaboration. I can't speak enough about it," Tsark said, adding that "it really supports the foster kids without burdening the social workers."
A lot of money is not needed, Browning said, "just people to become involved." Volunteers are the resources that help unburden an overloaded government system, he said.
Browning, who has three children -- Zach, 13, Kate, 11, and Isaiah, 5 -- said Project Visitation has reaffirmed his faith in people.
"Collective acts of love and grace can add up to great victories. It's a model that can be used to address all kinds of problems," he said.
Murray said the project began on the Waianae side of Oahu because volunteers were available there. Judy Sobin, Volunteer Legal Services Hawaii executive director, then committed funds for a full-time employee, and Otake became coordinator in March last year.
Among those in the early brainstorming sessions was Bernard Hvidding, Child Protective Services social worker, now supervisor of Central Child Welfare Services Unit 2, covering the area from Schofield and Wahiawa to Hauula.
He said he suggested partnering more with the community, and he and a few others started a pilot project in his church, Paradise Chapel. He referred a family of 10 foster children who were separated to begin the effort.
Hvidding said fellow church members reported "these kids were so excited about seeing each other. It made them cry how they responded. It made them sad it hadn't been done before."
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Devin Alford and his wife, M'Liss, were shocked when they saw as many as eight siblings all in different foster homes.
stir volunteers to action
By Helen Altonn
"It's really heart-wrenching to see what these kids go through," said Alford, who manages medical transcription for Kapiolani Health. "And foster homes are all different, too. Some (kids) move around a lot. ... It's really gut-wrenching."
The Alfords volunteered for Project Visitation after reading an article by Family Court Judge R. Mark Browning.
"It was very moving," Alford said. "It had never occurred to us that there were situations like this where kids, siblings, were in separate foster homes.
"I thank God for him writing the article. This is such a minimal effort for us and makes such a big impact on the kids. It's easy. They're a lot of fun."
The Alfords went through an orientation and signed up as volunteers more than a year ago, he said. They work with three boys, ages 8 and 10, including twins. All are in different foster homes.
"We were very nervous about it beforehand," Alford said. "We figured kids in this kind of situation would be real troubled kids."
He said he grilled a friend who is a special-education teacher for 2 1/2 hours on how to keep three boys in line.
"It really was not necessary. It turned out the kids are absolutely wonderful. ... They are very rambunctious boys, very energetic."
They have normal little squabbles, but as long as they're outside, they're happy, he said.
He and his wife, a financial analyst for First Hawaiian Bank, and their 5-year-old daughter, Hulali, take the boys to the beach or the zoo.
"If they just go to the park, they're happy just to see each other," Alford said.
"They're nice to Hulali and she doesn't pester them," Alford said. "She realizes they're there to see each other."
They work out schedules with the foster moms, usually once a month but sometimes more often, he said.
Gloria Riveira, Waipahu Intermediate School health aide, is another volunteer with others at Paradise Chapel. She teamed up last year with Charlotte Lanai to arrange visits for four siblings, ages 4 to 9. Two are in foster homes in Kaimuki, and two are in Ewa Beach.
The two volunteers previously worked with eight of 10 siblings who were in four different foster homes. The oldest was 15; the youngest, 2.
"It's really sad," Riveira said. "They did not see one of the siblings for 10 years, so you have a good feeling when you do this."
The family included two sets of twins, she said. "We know of one set (age 11) actually separated in two different households."
The other twins were together, and the foster mother kept them out of the visitations to maintain their stability, Riveira said.
When they got the eight other children together, she said, they were "really, really shy."
Riveira said one of the girls asked, "'Miss, do you folks get paid for this?' We said no." The girl asked why they did it.
"I said ... 'Because we love children, and you cannot be a citizen of the United States of America and a citizen of Hawaii knowing there are needs out there and you're not doing something about it. ... It just blesses our heart to see you folks get together and getting to know each other again.'
"We know the system can only do so much," Riveira added. "We, as the general public, have a responsibility not only to our biological children, but to children of Hawaii. Either we spend time with them now, or we'll pay the price later. I wish everybody would get involved. It's a good feeling."
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Islanders can help improve the lives of abused children by becoming foster parents or Project Visitation volunteers.
Isle children need
foster care and help
The state Department of Human Services urgently needs foster homes to avoid placing children in emergency shelters when police take them from parents into protective custody.
Volunteers are sought by Project Visitation to provide opportunities for separated foster siblings to see each other.
Residents interested in becoming foster parents should call 800-995-7949 or, on Oahu, 454-2570.
To volunteer for Project Visitation or obtain more information, call 236-0489.
Volunteers must be 18 or older, undergo a criminal background check by the DHS and attend a child management training session to learn how the program operates and situations that might arise with foster children.
State Department of Human Services
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