A federal report cites
a lack of resources
and high caseloads
A shortage of resources and a high number of caseloads for social workers are taxing Hawaii's child welfare system, according to a comprehensive review by the federal government.
In its preliminary findings released yesterday, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services cited a number of deficiencies in the way the state handles the 13,000 cases of child abuse and child neglect that it sees each year.
"Everywhere we went this week, over and over we heard about extremely high caseloads from (Department of Human Services) workers, from judges and the attorneys," said Linda Mitchell, team leader of the federal agency's review.
"We heard about overloaded foster homes and waiting lists for services. There is no question that the high caseloads and lack of services impacted your results in this review," Mitchell said.
She said her team interviewed one state Child Protective Services worker who was handling 50 cases of child abuse and neglect investigations and was responsible for monitoring the treatments of 20 additional children.
That worker recently was assigned 15 new abuse and neglect cases for review, Mitchell said.
"It's impossible to do anything with that kind of caseload," Mitchell said. "Workers can't go out to see the families and kids when they are carrying that kind of caseload."
During the past week, a team of 36 workers from the federal DHHS visited seven of the state CPS's regional offices as the federal department's first top-to-bottom review of the state's child welfare system.
That review is part of a three-year nationwide effort to establish national standards for child welfare systems. So far, DHHS has examined 39 states, and in each case the federal agency has found significant deficiencies.
In the case of Hawaii, the federal investigators found that:
>> CPS investigators do not respond quickly enough to reports of child abuse and neglect.
The federal government did commend the state for its handling of adoptions and family reunification. They also cited the state's use of ohana counseling, which provides increased parental and community input in resolving abuse and neglect cases.
>> The state does not provide enough resources to train foster parents, sometimes placing foster children with families even before the families receive training.
>> The departments of Human Services, Health and Education and other social agencies with a stake in child welfare do an inadequate job of communicating and sharing resources.
>> The state abdicates its responsibilities by relying too much on outside service providers to monitor children and their families.
>> Victims of child abuse are sometimes returned to their families too soon, resulting in repeated abuse.
Lillian Koller, director of the state Department of Human Services, which oversees the child welfare system, welcomed the review, saying it will provide directions for reforming Hawaii's child welfare system, which is a goal of Gov. Linda Lingle's administration.
Koller noted that the Lingle administration has already expressed a need to break down the interdepartmental barriers between the Human Services and Health departments and change the work environment for the state's social workers.
"I think that our workers have been struggling for so long with these handicaps that they just cope," Koller said.
"They need some leadership to get them out of the boxes they are in," Koller added.
Rep. Dennis Arakaki, chairman of the House Health Committee, said he hopes the federal review will prompt the Lingle administration to commit additional resources to the child welfare system.
"We've heard these things for the past 15 years of the state's Child Protective Services system," said Arakaki (D, Alewa Heights).
"We have excellent statutes and we have excellent workers, but a lot of times we don't have the resources to provide the appropriate services," he said.
The findings released yesterday are part of a preliminary report. A final, written report will be provided to the state next month.
In the written report, the federal government will issue a fine against the department for its shortcomings, but that fine will be suspended for two years.
In the following 90 days, the state and the federal government will negotiate a program improvement plan that sets out specific benchmarks that the state will need to hit to reduce or eliminate the fine.