DAY 2: THE LURE OF ICE
It Was Rough
After the withdrawal and denial,
the couple realized they had neglected
their children. 'We still have a long way
to go,' said one. 'We're going to
stay clean,' said the other.
Yesterday, the Star-Bulletin reported how Rhonda DeCambra and Bennett Villanueva's growing drug habit began engulfing their lives -- and those of their children. The Waianae couple argued often, binged on crystal meth for days, and he eventually lost his job due to erratic behavior. The children acted out for attention and grew harder to handle, Villanueva said. But the withdrawals felt so bad, they never strayed far from the drug. The day before DeCambra delivered her fourth baby, she smoked "ice." Paige, born with a racing heart, tested positive for the drug. A few days later, all four children were gone from their home. By Lori Tighe
When Paige was born, crystal methamphetamine flowed through her veins, causing her heart to pound uncontrollably.
"It was scary," recalled Rhonda DeCambra, 34, who had passed the "ice" on to her newborn, and whose own heart was fluttering. "I was worried for her. I really knew I was in trouble."
She immediately called Bennett Villanueva, her mate of seven years, who was at home watching their three other kids. She told him Paige had tested positive for ice and the state planned to take away their children.
Villanueva's reaction: He went to play baseball. But his brother and brother-in-law cornered him at the park, lectured him and called him a loser. He promised them he would go into treatment.
"I never wanted to get help. I thought I was doing fine," Villanueva said. "It's all denial."
The bottom had finally fallen out. The couple had joined the 90 percent of drug or alcohol addicts who abuse or neglect some 2,300 children a year in Hawaii. The No. 1 drug among child abusers is ice, according to Child Protective Services.
"It was rough, really rough to be removed from my family," said Villanueva of kids Paige and her siblings, Tiffany, 5; Bennett Jr., 3; and Paula Ann, 2. "I went into treatment for them."
When the couple agreed to treatment, CPS supervisor Wendall Omura suggested Ohana Conferencing, a less restrictive CPS process that sidesteps Family Court.
Ohana Conferencing, begun in Hawaii in 1996, develops a support network of family and friends around the troubled parents. They talk story about the family's progress at several three- to four-hour sessions. CPS workers guide the meetings, as the children play at the adults' feet.
CPS held DeCambra and Villanueva's first Ohana Conference soon after Paige's birth in November. The group determined a "safety plan," Omura said, and placed the children with the grandparents.
When Villanueva, 36, walked into Sand Island Treatment Center, run by the Hawaii Alcoholism Foundation, he felt ready for cleanup.
"You've got to help yourself and do it yourself," Villanueva said. "It was rough, but without their help I wouldn't be here today. I needed their strictness."
DeCambra moved in with her parents and attended an outpatient drug program for five months.
As the couple emerged from their drug withdrawal, they also came out of denial. "We slowly realized how we neglected our children," DeCambra said.
Although neglect cases receive less attention from the state, they make up nearly half of all CPS cases. Neglect can be just as damaging to children as physical abuse, Omura said.
"Neglected children lack supervision. We see cases of wandering children all the time. Also in cases of substance abuse, the parents' needs come before the children's."
Pregnant mothers who abuse drugs often don't get prenatal care, placing the unborn child at risk. After the child's birth, the drug-addicted parent typically won't follow up with the child's doctor appointments and immunizations, Omura said.
In drug treatment, DeCambra also learned about energy.
"Your energy comes naturally and it takes you on a steady pace throughout the day," she said. "The energy you have is what you're supposed to have."
Villanueva left Sand Island and entered Hina Mauka in Waipahu, another drug-treatment program, where he credits counselor Sarah Lindsey with lending him the hand he needed to continue his recovery.
He embraced the 12-step program begun by Alcoholics Anonymous. He also learned to love himself and to prevent relapse by changing his lifestyle.
"It always brings tears to my eyes when people like Bennett get it," Lindsey said. "They realize they don't want to go back to that old life."
Omura, satisfied with their treatment, reunited the children with the couple at their second Ohana Conference in March.
The couple went through parenting classes and learned skills to help their children obey. Tiffany improved noticeably in school and began to blossom, DeCambra said.
"Paying attention to them has brought out their self-esteem."
Their last Ohana Conference served as closure in their eight-month recovery. One of DeCambra's cousins, an aunt, Villanueva's sister and a few close family friends came.
They arrived bearing food and met in the administrator's office at the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center.
"The strength comes when the community takes over and the state steps out," Omura said. "That will determine the long-term success. If they don't have the skills and support once we release them, they'll fall back."
Grandmother Ho'oipo DeCambra, towering at 6-foot-1 in the center of the room, began the conference.
"We will let our hearts lead. I brought 10 candles, two songs, a water bowl symbolizing cleansing of life. It's a celebration of a great accomplishment for our family," she said, smiling.
Everyone took a turn to speak.
"It is very heartwarming for me to see a family come to this point," Omura said. "You're one of the few families who have come out of this. You guys can be role models. I'm really proud of you."
Rhonda DeCambra thanked the group.
"It was very easy; you just got to want it," she said, and began to cry. "This Ohana Conference brought us together and made us stronger. We're going to stay clean."
Villanueva held Rhonda DeCambra's hand. "We still have a long way to go," he said, also starting to cry. "But the feeling of love is so good."
Ho'oipo DeCambra smiled at them and said, "Welcome home. You've been away a long time."
Then she presented a quilt she'd made for her daughter.
One square held a snippet of Rhonda's first ballet tutu. A Jeep symbolized when Rhonda's father taught her to drive in the sand. Books represented college she attends now to become a medical assistant. Profiles of three women stood for the strong females in the DeCambra family. The child symbolized Rhonda giving birth to life.
Ho'oipo DeCambra pointed to the last square with a star.
"This is the future," she told both of them, "shooting for that star."
The injuries seen inBy Lori Tighe
emergency rooms have grown
more serious and
The stream of children with bruises, burns and bones snapped like twigs has worn down Dr. Christian Derauf. Their tortured -- sometimes lifeless -- eyes scar him for life.
"This year appears to be a real aberration," Derauf said. "Since the beginning of 1998, we have been deluged with cases of physical abuse. I've been busier than I can recall."
The number of beaten children entering Hawaii emergency rooms this year will probably equal that of the previous few years. But the severity of the injuries is worsening, Derauf said.
Doctors suspect that parents' substance abuse -- particularly of crystal methamphetamine, or "ice" -- is igniting the lethal combination of a bad economy, growing poverty and a parental history of child abuse.
"We have pretty good evidence crystal meth seems to be associated with violence and could be linked to the injuries we're seeing," Derauf said.
His staff has treated a large number of children with broken bones and shaken baby syndrome, as well as victims of neglect and sexual abuse.
"We're seeing more serious and bizarre types of cases, like the Pada case," agreed Dr. Steven Choy, director of Kapiolani Child Protection Center.
The "Pada case" refers to Kimberly Pada, 29, who goes on trial Jan. 18, 1999, for attempted murder of her son, Reubyne Buentipo Jr. The boy, who turned 5 in a nursing home Aug. 14, cannot see, hear or talk. Once a rambunctious kid who loved dancing to MTV, he has become Hawaii's poster child for reform of the state's Child Protective Services.
Friends and relatives told police Pada smoked ice.
"The crystal meth heightened her feelings; she didn't like Reubyne or his father," said Bill Sullivan, a former foster parent to Reubyne. "Apparently she had some problem with his father and she must have taken it out on Reubyne."
The boy's injuries included a skull fracture, brain swelling, retinal hemorrhages, multiple cuts and bruises over his body and a burn on his left foot.
Reubyne stands out, but he doesn't stand alone.
The father of Austin Tabag-Doi, 3-1/2 months old, allegedly smoked ice. Eugene Tabag, 30, tested positive for a drug in his system the morning his son died May 31. Police suspect he had used ice.
Austin suffered from a back broken in two places, a fractured skull and ribs and a broken collar bone. He also had facial injuries, scrotum bruises and retinal hemorrhages, say police, the medical examiner and a state prosecutor. Tabag is facing trial in Austin's death.
Katiana-Marie Aplaca, 9-1/2 weeks old, was brain damaged and may never walk due to beatings June 18, 1997, at the hand of her father, Gordon Aplaca. He was convicted of abusing his daughter.
"I suspect ice was a big part of it," said Mark Worsham, Aplaca's attorney, of the case.
Aplaca has denied smoking the drug. His attorney claimed to have reports showing ice use by Katiana-Marie's mother, but a judge ruled those allegations inadmissable in trial. In court, the woman said she didn't inflict the injuries or see anyone harm her children. The couple lived in a house with 10 other adults.
Ice and child abuseIce plays a major role in most child abuse cases, said attorney Janice Wolf, who has served as a Family Court-appointed attorney for parents and a guardian ad litem for about 400 abused and neglected children.
"Ice has worsened abuse and neglect," Wolf said. "To say parents have a difficult time parenting is an understatement. They are unable to protect their kids. They neglect their medical care, they neglect feeding them. I've had parents who have disappeared for weeks. And the injuries have become more severe."
About 80 percent of Wolf's 400-some child abuse cases involved ice use by one or both parents, she said.
"The public needs to be educated."
When police learn parents are ice users, they often find the children neglected, said Lt. Marie McCauley, head of the Honolulu Police Department's family violence detail.
Crystal methamphetamine's side-effects, including depression, sleeplessness, anxiety and paranoia, lead many users to ignore or pounce on children who have the misfortune of being in their path, McCauley said.
"Maternal instincts and moral makeup get set aside. It (ice) leaves them sleepless, short-fused. The effects are horrendous," she said. "It's getting bad, and with this economy it's horrible."
A sad cycleIn many Hawaii families, the cycle of abuse has continued for decades, and ice may be the catalyst causing it to reignite.
A history of child abuse appeared common among Hawaii ice users in a study done by researcher Patricia Morgan, professor at the University California at Berkeley, School of Public Health.
She studied 150 crystal meth users each in Honolulu, San Francisco and San Diego for the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 1994.
"The history of abuse struck me," Morgan said. "We found more abuse among ice users in Hawaii than anywhere else."
A majority of the Hawaii ice users Morgan interviewed, all of the women and many of the men, said they had been physically abused as children.
"They are unable to find peace any other way than the drug," said Mason Henderson, executive director of the Sand Island Treatment Center.
Sand Island counselors find many ice users have underlying issues of child abuse, neglect and incest, Henderson said. And many addicts face their history of abuse for the first time in treatment.
"It's fair to say the difficulties we're seeing appear to be more substantial than 10 years ago," Derauf said. "Families where substance abuse, multigenerational child abuse and domestic violence are very prominent."
Whatever the causes, Derauf must keep pace with the outcomes: broken children.
"The intensity of the cases, the sense of loss of an innocent child through death or serious injury is personally very difficult to deal with," he said. "It's easy to burn out."
The number of confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect in Hawaii over the years, as compiled by the state's Department of Human Services:
A history of abuse
1970 ......... 487 1971 ......... 504 1972 ......... 558 1973 ......... 499 1974 ......... 560 1975 ......... 423 1976 ......... 634 1977 ......... 841 1978 ...... 1,110 1979 ...... 1,109 1980 ...... 1,059 1981 ...... 1,137 1982 ...... 1,379 1983 ...... 1,621 1984 ...... 2,180 1985 ...... 2,391 1986 ...... 2,629 1987 ...... 2,555 1988 ...... 2,315 1989 ...... 2,386 1990 ...... 2,392 1991 ...... 2,318 1992 ...... 2,485 1993 ...... 2,411 1994 ...... 2,334 1995 ...... 2,317 1996 ...... 2,268
The Honolulu Police Department's Child Abuse Unit has tracked 940 cases on Oahu since its formation in November 1997, through May 31 of this year. Of these:
Child-abuse case load
554 were cases in which kids were harmed, requiring police investigation.
29 were forwarded to HPD's Sex Abuse Unit.
333 were "miscellaneous" cases on the fringes of crime; i.e., neglect, homelessness, poor parenting skills, mental disorders.
22 were felonies, involving serious injuries such as broken bones.
2 were homicides.
The top three injuries and abuses inflicted on children, according to Honolulu police:
The injuries suffered
1. Bruises, welts or black eyes.
2. Drug-exposed babies, infants born to mothers who used drugs during pregnancy.
3. Pain of injuries not visible; stomach aches, back aches, head aches, etc.
Over the past decade here, October has seen the highest number of child abuse reports, double that of an average month, says Johnny Papa, Child Protective Services supervisor. The theory: Kids head back to school, where they disclose the problem to teachers and others. To report suspected abuse, call the Department of Human Services, Family and Adult Services Division, Child Protective Services. The CPS hotlines:
East Hawaii (Hilo): 933-0350
West Hawaii (Kona): 327-4787
Maui: 243-5162; after 4:30 p.m. and weekends: 244-7407
Name and address of child, and name of parents or caretakers.
What to report
Child's age, and if child has siblings or relatives.
Nature of child abuse and injuries; date, time and location of incident.
Name of alleged abuser and whereabouts.
Any other helpful information in determining cause of abuse.
Signs to watch for in kids that could indicate the use of drugs:
Signs of drug use
Obvious loss of initiative
Switching friends: LIfelong friends begin to deteriorate, or new, bad friends begin to appear. If their peers use, they may be using.
Emotional highs and lows: Easily upset. Emotional state changes rapidly. Doesn't seem as happy or outgoing as he or she used to be.
Behavioral changes: Depressive look, euphoric/energy, paranoid, hypersensitive, easily agitated, aggressive to violent outbursts, delusional, suicidal, hallucinatory, psychotic.