It’s not always easy to decide what’s best for an at-risk child
In Steve Lane's Jan. 24 letter to the editor, he expressed frustration at seeing vulnerable children returned to family members with a history of substance abuse. This frustration is understandable, but his letter contained statements that could confuse readers who are unfamiliar with Hawaii's child welfare system.
Lane said the recent death of toddler Cyrus Belt reminded him of the 1997 case of Reubyne Buentipo Jr., who sustained severe injuries after being violently shaken. In the Reubyne case, however, there was confirmed physical abuse that was more serious than the neglect suffered by Cyrus. Also, Reubyne's injuries were inflicted by his mother, while the accused murderer of Cyrus is Matthew Higa, a neighbor.
Lane also blamed the state Department of Human Services for reuniting children with "dysfunctional, often drug-addicted families." The fact is, DHS must follow legal statutes in such cases. And when incidents of child abuse or neglect go to Family Court, as happened in Reubyne's case, it is the judge -- not DHS -- who decides if children should be returned to their parents, kept in foster care or made available for adoption.
Unfortunately, Lane also downplayed the complexity of this decision-making process facing our child welfare system. While the state is committed to acting in the best interest of every at-risk child, the wisest course of action is often difficult to determine.
Consider this: Is it better to place a child in foster care, which might involve a lengthy and traumatic separation from family members, friends and classmates? Or is it better to make the child's home a safer place by providing parents with drug rehabilitation, counseling and other services?
This is not an easy call, but our state increasingly makes the right decision. To prove my point, look at statistics compiled by the federal government, which tracks confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect to determine if maltreatment recurs within six months.
Hawaii had one of the lowest rates of recurring child abuse or neglect in the country for state Fiscal Year 2007 at 2.2 percent, which is far below the nationally accepted standard of 6.1 percent.
We also have consistently done better than the federal standard for the past four years, with our recurrence rate dropping from 6 percent in 2003 to 5.7 percent in 2004, 3.5 percent in 2005 and 3 percent in 2006.
In the case of Cyrus, could his shocking death have been prevented if he lived in a foster home? No one can answer that question. What we do know is that our state must learn from the horrific loss of Cyrus and accelerate efforts to protect other children from becoming victims.
As Human Services director, I guarantee that we will find ways to prevent other children from being injured or exposed to unreasonable risk or neglect by parents who test positive for drugs. That course of action is what we are zeroing in on right now.
Lillian Koller is director of the state Department of Human Services.