Sunday, November 25, 2001


Rise in drug abuse,
economic strains
push isle child abuse
levels to highs

Officials say case loads are
overwhelming investigators

New family drug court targets abuse sources
Child sex abuse victim rebuilds her life

By Helen Altonn

Child abuse has reached unprecedented levels in Hawaii, and officials fear the increased unemployment and stress since Sept. 11 will continue to push the numbers higher.

State Human Services Director Susan Chandler said Child Protective Services workers are overwhelmed with the largest volume of complaints and investigations per month in the program's history.

About 90 percent of the cases involve drugs, with crystal methamphetamine the drug of choice, said Johnny Papa, CPS intake supervisor.

She said Oahu units used to accept about 130 cases a month for investigation; this year, they have had more than 200 a month.

CPS workers are besieged with more of everything, Papa said. More confirmed reports. More severely injured children. More cases going to court because families are not cooperative.

The sad thing about it, she said, is that every fourth case involves a hospitalization or removal of a child from the family. "The complexity of the cases keeps growing, with multiple perpetrators, multiple victimization, with prior incidents maybe not reported."

Cases usually involve more than one type of harm, she said, noting the sex abuse case load has doubled this year. Only the most serious cases are being investigated, with low and moderate-risk cases diverted to social services.

Drawings made by former clients of the Children's Justice Center of
Oahu decorate the waiting area of the social service center.

The number of cases investigated statewide during the first half of this year totaled 2,147, involving 3,311 children, according to Department of Human Services figures. Last year, 3,442 cases with 5,600 children were investigated.

"For some reason, Oahu and the Big Island have our biggest increases," Chandler said. "Things are under better control on Maui and Kauai."

Mary Anne Magnier, supervisor of the Family Law Division in the state Attorney General's Office, said more than 100 petitions a month are being filed in court, compared with 38 a month in 1993.

Most are on Oahu, but the Big Island also has a huge number, mainly on the Hilo side, she said.

These are civil cases in which the state tries to get the family into social services to resolve their difficulties.

Federal guidelines require a permanent decision for a child within a year -- "a pretty quick time," Magnier said, especially if drugs are involved.

The deadline can be extended if parents are improving, she said. "It's on a case-by-case basis, but there are so many cases, it's easy to start to look at it as a MASH unit."

Her office on a recent weekend had 1,850 active cases, each involving one child or multiple children. "It's a problem for the whole community to start to grapple with," Magnier said, stressing that programs are needed to address drug use, starting in schools.

Amy Tsark, Child Welfare Services Branch administrator, cited a shortage of social workers, services and support staff. "The needs are just so great," said Tsark.

There are 184 child welfare social workers statewide. Last year they handled 1,881 cases involving 3,226 children.

Burnout and the lure of higher-paying, less-stressful jobs result in constant staff turnover and a bigger workload for experienced workers.

"I don't even recognize names on our roster, there are so many people," Papa said. "I can't imagine walking into a case load like this at record volume pace."

Tsark said callers become frustrated because social workers cannot return calls. "They're always in the field investigating or going to court."

Each unit needs a clerk and secretary because of required paperwork involving 10-page forms and the need for five or six copies, she said. Yet most units have no clerk.

Chandler said the department is proposing a centralized intake system "to help provide equal entrance into CPS across the state, and hopefully more consistency in providing services." All reports of child abuse would go into Papa's intake office for assessment.

Safety is the chief concern when a child is removed from the home, but CPS workers want to help parents make changes if possible so they can be reunited with their children, the officials said.

"We have 11 months to put Humpty Dumpty back together again," Papa said, referring to the federal guideline to file a permanency plan with the court.

"They can go back to mom or dad, or permanently be out of the home with relatives or with adoption. The goal is to provide a safe and permanent home for these kids. By the 11th month, they (parents) have to say whether they're going to fish or cut bait."

But realistically, Papa added, "What parent is going to resolve their problem in 11 months?"

Despite the pressures and demands, Tsark cited many efforts to improve child protection, including:

>> Collaborations with Family Court Judges R. Mark Browning and John Charles Bryant Jr. to provide visitation between siblings in foster care, to increase awareness of adoptions and recruit adoptive homes. Senior Family Court Judge Frances Q.F. Wong also is working on establishing a family drug court.

>> Collaborations with the Friends of Foster Care to enhance lives of foster families and children. That organization works with the Family Court on Project Visitation and the Adoption Connection, and the Adoption Connection works with the Casey Family Program.

"It seems like we're doing a lot of little things, but little things count to help make the system better, to coordinate things for children, families and foster parents," Tsark said.

"When you hear about the hard part, the sad part is you lose sight of a lot of good people trying to work together."

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