Blaming current administration for past abuse cases won’t help isles’ keiki
As the Star-Bulletin reported, the Hawaii Supreme Court recently upheld a $1.1 million lawsuit against the Department of Human Services (DHS) regarding a child abuse case on Maui. The March 21 story was accurate but reader comments in the online forum blaming the Lingle-Aiona administration were way off the mark.
To begin with, this 2001 abuse case predated the tenure of Gov. Linda Lingle, who took office in December 2002 and appointed Lillian Koller as Human Services director the following month.
Also, DHS has received national attention for making widespread improvements to its Child Welfare Services Branch during the past five years. Most recently, a Pew Center on the States "report card" published by Governing magazine in March had this to say:
"Since 2003, Director Lillian Koller has transformed an insensitive agency that was removing children from their homes at four times the national average without appreciable safety benefits." Also, "Continuous quality improvement goals, more stringent than federal requirements, have improved case worker response time and brought re-abuse rates down."
In 2007, the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services -- through its Administration on Children, Youth and Families -- honored Koller with the Commissioner's Award for exceptional contributions to the prevention and treatment of child abuse and neglect in Hawaii.
Also in 2007, the federal government presented DHS with an Adoption Excellence Award. We were one of 15 recipients of this national honor and one of only two in the category of Child Welfare System Improvement.
To see an objective measure of our progress during the Lingle-Aiona administration, it is instructive to examine 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. Our rate of 2.2 percent was 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. Our recurrence rate stood at 6 percent in 2003 and then dropped to 5.7 percent in 2004, 3.5 percent in 2005 and 3 percent in 2006.
Clearly, under Koller's leadership, DHS staff and our community partners have worked very hard during the past five years, and we have significantly and measurably enhanced the safety, well-being and stability of at-risk children. And that's great news for us all.
Regarding the Hawaii Supreme Court's recent decision in the Maui child abuse case holding DHS 29 percent liable, this is, indeed, a sad case of an injured child that occurred before Koller's tenure.
In 2001, DHS responded to a report of a child with a broken leg. Neither the Maui Police Department, nor the child's doctors, nor DHS could determine how the fracture occurred.
To this day, no one knows how the injuries happened, when they happened, and who or what caused them. No criminal charges have been brought against anyone for the injuries.
Most important, the possibility that the injuries were entirely accidental was never ruled out.
Still, DHS was held liable.
No one ever disputed that the child had at least two safe family homes, so the police and DHS had no legal basis to remove the child.
Still, DHS was held liable.
While making the state pay as a "deep pocket" is one way to get compensation for an injured child, it is unfair to Hawaii's taxpayers and it is exasperating for our social workers, whose conduct may be condemned no matter what they do.
Amy Tsark is administrator of the Department of Human Services Child Welfare Services branch.