Tuesday, January 26, 1999

Audit finds
‘holes’ in child

'The one positive thing
in all of this is (Human Services)
agrees with us,' the state
auditor says

By Lori Tighe


The Department of Human Services has failed to ensure all child abuse and neglect reports are investigated when appropriate, according to an audit released today.

DHS supervision has been "insufficient and staff have failed to follow established procedures to assess risk of harm when receiving and investigating reports of suspected abuse," the audit said.

Although child abuse statistics have remained stable over the last three years, deaths appear to be increasing and abuse appears to be worsening, say doctors who treat children.

Nationally, about 33 percent of child abuse reports are confirmed, compared with Hawaii, where 50 percent are confirmed.

"The reason is on the mainland, most states investigate more of the cases they get. But Hawaii investigates the more serious cases," said Chuck Braden, executive director of PREVENT Child Abuse Hawaii.

"For a child abuse case to be investigated, it seems we have to have a very visibly damaged child before anything ever happens."

The 1998 Legislature -- prompted by increasing concern about abused children -- ordered the audit of the entire system. It includes Child Protective Services, Family Courts, police in four counties, and the attorney general's office.

"We were surprised about the holes in so many places children can fall. There are numerous chinks in the system," said Marion Higa, state auditor.

Six analysts in Higa's office worked on the audit full-time since June.

"The one positive thing in all of this is that DHS agrees with us. So we won't be spending time disagreeing on the problems, but we'll spend it on fixing them," Higa said.

The biggest hole was an over-reliance of individual decisions by DHS workers on whether to investigate reports of abuse or neglect.

"Too much is left to individual judgment," Higa said. "Supervisors need to review all decisions."

One example: A person reported a child being abused by an aunt, but a DHS worker dismissed the report because the aunt wasn't the primary caregiver.

Also, police don't always report abuse and neglect cases to DHS. An estimated 40 percent of child sexual assault cases hadn't been reported to DHS.

The state auditor recommended DHS improve management controls to oversee decisions on which cases to investigate.

The state audit is available to the public upon request. It can be obtained at the state auditor's office, 465 S. King St., fifth floor.

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