Sunday, March 16, 2003

Isle child welfare
flaws under scrutiny

National and local authorities
agree that more can be done
to improve foster care

By Helen Altonn

Hawaii's child welfare system has some serious flaws, from training and support for foster parents to a shortage of resources to mend family problems, say national and local authorities.

Criminal prosecution of offenders to protect kids is another important gap, said Wayne D. Duehn, University of Texas School of Social Work professor.

Duehn recently conducted a two-day workshop for about 200 participants at the Oahu Children's Justice Task Force's 2003 Sexual Abuse Conference at Central Union Church.

"You all are losing really fabulous foster parents because of fear (of false accusations)," he said. "You won't train them or support them. I learned that from your foster parents here and in Hilo."

"We can always do more, but we do have a number of training opportunities for foster parents," said Amy Tsark, Child Welfare Services Branch administrator.

The Department of Human Services collaborates with other agencies to provide workshops and flies foster parents to Honolulu and pays registration fees for an annual Foster Parents' Association conference, she said.

"The staff is really doing the best they can," she said. "One can say you can never have enough information, training and support. We have to be creative in collaborating with other partners, private, public and community. That is something we all have to face, not just in child welfare."

Duehn said "it's imperative" that all agencies and workers involved with child sex abuse cases be located at one site to work together.

The Judiciary budget for the next fiscal year includes $4.2 million in general obligation bonds to combine all services in Honolulu in a new center.

The Big Island has had a huge increase in serious child abuse cases in the last four years, said Marianne Okamura, director of the Children's Justice Center in East Hawaii.

About 90 percent have drug-related problems and cases going to court have doubled because of their severity, she said. The heavy caseload has resulted in many vacant child welfare positions, she said.

Meanwhile, she said she has asked child welfare workers on other islands to fly to Hilo on weekends to help out, even though "everyone is overloaded and working overtime."

She said 15 percent to 20 percent of child welfare positions are vacant statewide, but Gov. Linda Lingle exempted those positions from being frozen so they can be filled on a permanent basis.

Big Island Family Court Judge Ben Gaddis said the court attempts to reunify a family within a year, but there are a lot of problems with the child welfare system and lack of resources.

He said he'd like to see more help given to non-offending parents because their support is critical for the outcome of a sexually abused child.

"There are more kids and fewer and fewer options for resources," said William Wallace, Honolulu Family Court per-diem judge.

If resources aren't available and families can't satisfy a service plan, Lind said, "A lot of parents lose children or children lose parents."

Tsark said, however, the Department of Human Services has discretion under the law to ask the court for more time if parents are motivated and making progress.

Lind noted that there is no residential treatment program for sexually abused children unless they qualify under the Felix consent degree.

About one-third of children under 18 start as sex abuse victims, then become offenders, she said. "If we had treatment (programs), we could stop the cycle."

Also, no treatment is provided for child victims of intrafamilial sexual abuse and their families who aren't in the child welfare system, she said. Legislation has been proposed to appropriate $1 million over the next two years to provide treatment in those cases.

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