Social ills common
in rural Puna district

The sparsely populated Puna district of the Big Island has an abundance of social problems, including poverty, drug abuse and a high number of child-abuse cases, state and county officials say.

"The abuse is here," said acting police Lt. Glenn Uehana, of the East Hawaii Juvenile Aid Section. "It's present in probably every district on the island, but we tend to have higher numbers of things that are bad there (in Puna)."

Uehana is among the officers investigating the case of Alexis, a 10-year-old Puna girl whose festering wounds have left her in extremely critical condition in Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children.

"It's one of the most severe I've seen in the 20 years as a police officer," he said.


Puna has a population of about 31,000 and, according to the state Department of Human Services, had 211 confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect in 2003 and 253 unconfirmed cases, totaling 464, or 15 per thousand of population. By comparison, urban Honolulu, population 371,000, had 530 confirmed cases and 497 unconfirmed cases, totaling 1,027 in 2003; that is a rate of 2.8 per thousand.

Statewide there were 7,800 reports of child abuse in 2003, of which 3,900 are confirmed.

Uehana said the rural areas are harder to serve, and Puna lacks government social services in general.

Dr. Vicky Schneider at Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children noted, "Severe cases are pretty rare."

"With over 4,000 cases (on Oahu) investigated by Child Welfare Services, just a handful are hospitalized with severe injuries every year," Schneider said. That does not include children who die right away and do not make it to the hospital, she said.

Ginny Aste, a community organizer with a master's degree in social work, said many Puna families have been "chronically stressed because of poverty, chronic substance abuse and unemployment."

The median income in Puna is $11,888. Of Puna's public school children, 86 percent receive free or reduced cost lunch, Aste said.

"It isn't just the poverty that causes this (child abuse), but it is a contributing cause," Aste said. "Other communities have the same problems but have more services to deal with them."

Aste points to the lack of sufficient social services, including parenting classes and mental health counseling, to meet the needs of the population in Puna, with its 30 subdivisions.

Earl Ikeda, police chaplain and minister at the Puna Hongwanji Mission, said the area is one of the hardest hit by drug abuse, with a high crime rate and spouse and child abuse.

"They all go hand in hand," he said, something he has learned from attending many drug summits.

"I'm thinking of this as a wake-up call," he said. He stressed the need for the community to work together to fight the drug problem.

Ikeda is trying to start youth programs to combat the problems, but he said change is difficult because of a fear of retaliation.

"The sense of fear is so great," he said. "Someone who informs on a drug dealer, his life is nothing."

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