Hawaii’s at-risk children have reason for hope
There are two remarkable trends occurring in Hawaii's child welfare system: The number of children in foster care has dropped dramatically during the past five years, while the safety of our children has improved nearly three-fold.
On any given day in 2003, about 3,000 children statewide were in foster care. Today, only 1,700 children are in state care -- the lowest number since 1993.
Also in 2003, Hawaii's child re-abuse rate stood at 6 percent. That number fell to just 2.2 percent in 2007, meaning our state now has one of the lowest re-abuse rates in the country, and we are doing far better than the accepted national standard of 6.1 percent.
What created these positive trends?
» First, the Department of Human Services no longer has a "one size fits all" protocol when investigating reports of child abuse or neglect. Under that old approach, DHS removed children from their biological parents at up to four times the national rate with no improvement in safety outcomes.
Today, under the Lingle-Aiona administration's leadership, DHS uses an innovative Differential Response System that carefully weighs the risk factors in a family's home. DHS developed this Web-based system with the National Resource Center for Child Protective Services in New Mexico, and with information technology faculty and students at Maui Community College. This system helps DHS determine the least intrusive and most effective intervention for each report of child abuse or neglect.
If DHS determines that a home is not safe for children and cannot be made safe, police are alerted to immediately remove the keiki and place them in protective care. However, if the risk to children is not high, DHS works with families to voluntarily resolve safety problems in their homes by providing outreach, counseling, parenting classes and other social services.
» The second main factor in lowering foster care numbers and increasing child safety involves a significant investment of federal money by DHS to strengthen at-risk families and promote youth development.
Prior to the start of Director Lillian Koller's tenure in 2003, DHS had not spent any money from its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families federal funding on poverty prevention programs. DHS primarily used this annual block grant of nearly $99 million for welfare checks, with the remaining federal dollars allowed to sit idle in a reserve fund that eventually mushroomed to one of the largest in the nation.
DHS now uses TANF money to support a wide range of community agencies that follow proven strategies for helping parents find and retain employment. These agencies also help young people succeed in school and prepare for college and careers, while helping them avoid substance abuse, crime and out-of-wedlock pregnancies -- all of which lead directly to poverty and child abuse.
The good news about Hawaii's foster care system comes as we prepare for our second Child and Family Services Review, which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will conduct in 2009. This nationwide review will help Hawaii and all the other states determine where they are succeeding with their child welfare services, while pinpointing areas that need further improvement.
DHS and its community partners welcome this federal scrutiny because it reinforces our commitment to continuous quality improvement. And this commitment to meeting and exceeding federal standards will lead to even stronger families and safer keiki.
Amy Tsark is the acting administrator of the Social Services Division of the Department of Human Services and the leader of the Child Welfare Services Branch.