Foster program helps
native Hawaiian kids

There was a certain relief when the kids grew up, moved out. That part of life -- of motherhood -- was over. A little relaxation was long overdue.

Foster Care Facts

» Fifty-three percent of children in foster care are native Hawaiian -- a total of about 1,627 kids -- while 14 percent are mixed (not part-native Hawaiian or Hispanic) and 8 percent are Caucasian.

» Thirty-six percent of foster parents are native Hawaiian, while about 25 percent are Caucasian and 15 percent are Filipino.

» There were 3,064 in foster care in October, the latest month for which statistics are available.

» The state has 2,080 foster homes.

Source: State Department of Human Services

"This is tutu's time now," Martha Carson remembered thinking to herself, not more than a year ago. But in her semiretirement, fate threw Carson into a job at nonprofit Kokua Ohana, which is aimed at recruiting more native Hawaiian foster parents.

Within months she had been persuaded to enroll in foster parenting classes. And before she had even completed them, Carson got a call to take in an emergency caseload: three adolescent native Hawaiian siblings, two girls and a boy.

"I was in shock after I'd said I'd take them," Carson said recently from her home in Waimea, three months after returning the children to their family after a 12-week stay. "They were taken from school and brought to my place of work. They told me, 'We have no clothes. We have no toothbrushes. We have no nothing. What's happening?'"

Carson is one of 12 native Hawaiian foster parents whom Kokua Ohana has recruited on the Big Island since the nonprofit started working with a two-year, $715,536 federal grant in November. Many of the organization's participants never saw themselves as foster parents. They were also never asked in earnest before the nonprofit came along.

The one-of-a-kind organization in the islands, which helps recruits to become licensed foster parents and forms support groups so they will not get too discouraged along the way, has plans to start wide-scale operations on Oahu this summer. In small recruitment efforts on the island earlier in the year, the program netted 12 native Hawaiian foster parents.

The statistics are good news for child welfare advocates here who have long been alarmed about the shortage of native Hawaiian foster parents.

About 53 percent of the state's more than 3,000 foster children are native Hawaiian, while only 36 percent of foster families are, according to state statistics.

The state Department of Human Services has said that about 40 percent of native Hawaiian children are placed in non-native Hawaiian homes, and a 2003 federal review of the department listed the disparity as a big negative.

"We've never made a lot of headway into the Hawaiian communities," said Lyn Kozama, assistant program administrator in the state Department of Human Services' Child Welfare Services Branch. That's where Kokua Ohana comes in, Kozama hopes.

The organization recruits from within native Hawaiian communities and organizations, getting the word out about the program through neighborhood boards, churches and schools.

"When we go, we present the need for more Hawaiian families," said Amanda Masuyama, Kokua Ohana's program coordinator.

She said placing a native Hawaiian foster child in a native Hawaiian home tends to "lessen the trauma that these kids go through" by allowing them to hold on to a "sense of identity."

Kokua Ohana uses the "hui concept" to create support groups for foster parents within the existing organizations, Masuyama said.

"I think a lot of agencies, they recruit and then that's it for them," she said. "Kokua Ohana takes a little bit of a different approach. We're using the community."

The nonprofit is headed by Waimea Kahu Dean Kauka, and some of its first foster parents -- including Carson -- came from his church. Kokua Ohana hopes to recruit 144 native Hawaiian foster parents by the time its grant runs out in 2006.

After a hectic several months with her foster children, Carson has decided to take a short break. But she says she has found a good fit in foster parenting and would take in more children if asked.

"It's not a financial reward," she said, with a laugh, "but the feeling you get from doing something for somebody who needs a kick, it's just awesome."

To contact Kokua Ohana on the Big Island, call their offices at 885-9290. On all other islands, call the organization's toll-free number, 800-396-4262.

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