State struggles to place teens in foster care
In May 1964 the state Department of Social Services ran a little classified newspaper ad: "Wanted Adoptive homes for Filipino and Hawaiian children. (Pure or with Oriental strain)."
A series of Star-Bulletin stories about the hard-to-place mixed racial children resulted in at least 15 adoptive families, many stationed here in the military. Fortunately, times have changed.
"Ethnicity is no longer a barrier to adoptions," said Amy Tsark, acting administrator of the Department of Human Services' Social Services Division. "In that aspect we have progress. We are doing more adoptions."
But there are problems finding homes for older foster youths, she said. "They need permanent families just as much as little ones."
The DHS just received a $498,000 federal award as an incentive payment to promote adoptions of foster children.
For the first time, the department can reinvest the money to promote more adoptions, Tsark said, explaining that until now the federal bonuses were needed to cover budget shortages for foster board payments.
Congress authorized the incentive payments in 1997 when the state was averaging about 150 adoptions a year, Tsark said. With efforts to clear up a backlog of children waiting for adoption, the figure jumped to 297 in 1998 and netted a $1.1 million federal bonus.
DHS received another bonus of $208,000 when adoptions reached 349 in 2002.
Tsark said the department is working with many partners to find permanent homes for older foster youths, including Family Court, the Hawaii Foster Youth Coalition and Heart Gallery Hawaii, founded by David Louis, a former foster youth.
"We're doing multiple things," she said. "The goal is to promote more and more adoptions. We need more families to come forward for older children, especially those with special needs who may be lost in the system, with mental and emotional challenges.
"We want to increase our partnership and do more recruitment, training of staff, training of providers and support so we can find permanent homes for our population of 200 kids, 12 to 17, waiting for adoptions."
Parental rights have been terminated for these children, and they need permanent families, either adoptions or legal guardians, Tsark said.
"Traditionally, people don't think older kids want to be adopted. That's a fallacy or myth. They come across like tough because they've been rejected a lot."
The state now has about 2,500 kids in foster care, Tsark said, noting the number has dropped because of major child welfare reforms.
"We have been putting $17 million upfront and enhanced our services to strengthen families, to support families to prevent child abuse and neglect so families can get help before problems get worse."
Because of the federal bonus, the DHS did not have to ask this year's Legislature for more money for foster board payments, Tsark said. But last year's number of 431 adoptions must be exceeded this year to qualify for another bonus, she said.
She hopes to exceed it and increase adoptions of older youths through expanded collaborations.
"So many positive changes have happened," Tsark said. "Child welfare used to be kind of isolated." Now it is reaching out not only to other state departments, but also coordinating better with courts, children's mental health agencies, the Hawaiian community, private coalitions and churches, she said.
The DHS is working with the state Health Department to provide an array of mental health services to families who adopt children with emotional or substance abuse issues, she said.
And, she said, "We're asking churches to come forward, not only to identify members to be foster adoptive members, but to provide wraparound services.
"We're trying to do many things and be creative," Tsark said.
For instance, she said, the department is recruiting resource families to provide a safe haven for children suffering abuse and neglect, and help birth families learn new ways to provide a safe home.
If the parents cannot change, the resource family can become an adoptive family, she said. The department also is promoting more adoptions by relatives who can provide support, safety and continuity for children, she noted.