Following the suicide of a teenager who had just left Hawaii’s foster care system, foster parents and service providers say that young adults who "age out" aren’t receiving critical services that could help them transition to being on their own.
Andreas Okolovitch runs a six-bed home in Salt Lake that helps former foster children with vocational training, high school equivalency degrees and entry into college. Okolovitch’s Horizons Independent Living Program currently has two openings — information that Okolovitch is certain isn’t getting to the majority of older foster children.
"A social worker will say, ‘Oh, I told the youth and he’s going to contact you,’" said Okolovitch, the program’s transition facilitator. "They don’t. If you leave it up to an 18-year-old, they’re often scared and hesitant to call because they have no history of doing that. So there is a huge communication problem, hooking kids up with resources."
Erwin Viado Celes had been in foster care for 14 years and won court approval at the age of 18 to extend his services until he turned 19 on March 12.
Six months later — with no place of his own to live — Celes hanged himself Sept. 7 in Hawaii Kai after bouncing from homes in Waianae, Mililani and Waipahu upon leaving foster care.
He was a popular and hard-working shift leader at the Wahiawa Little Caesars and dreamed of going to college on the mainland, said his co-workers, who raised money for his funeral and burial on Tuesday.
Following Celes’ suicide, state Rep. John Mizuno, chairman of the House Human Services Committee, tentatively scheduled a legislative briefing for 10 a.m. Wednesday at the state Capitol to find ways to prevent future foster children from falling into Celes’ situation.
"It’s tragic," Mizuno said. "Perhaps his death will not be in vain. Hopefully, other foster kids who age out won’t go through what he did. … One fatality is one too many. We can do better."
Toni Schwartz, spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services, said: "No kids ever leave without us continuing to provide them help. We make them aware of support services and resources well before they age out, while they’re still in our care. We don’t know if these kids take these services when they leave. But no kid exits our system without the information."
Every year, Hawaii has 1,300 to 1,400 children in foster care, Schwartz said. Currently, she said, "54 are about to age out without having a permanent home identified."
Starting Oct. 1, Hawaii began participating in a new National Youth in Transition Database that will track foster children at age 17, followed by updates at ages 19 and 21 "so we can track these kids after they age out," Schwartz said.
DHS officials initially said they would talk about Celes’ case, then later said they would provide redacted files on his case sometime this week on their website, www.hawaii.gov/dhs.
The release of Celes’ redacted files follows the unprecedented 2005 release of the case files for "Peter Boy" Kema Jr., a Big Island child abuse victim who disappeared in 1997 and is presumed dead.
"In the short time since Erwin’s tragic suicide occurred, a lot has been said about this young man and what happened to him in foster care," DHS Director Lillian Koller said in a statement. "Some of those comments are consistent with what is in the CPS (Child Protective Services) records and some comments are not consistent. … My intention in sharing this information — which is normally confidential — is not to bare Erwin’s life but, instead, to ensure transparency and accountability so the public can see what CPS, the Family Court and our other partners did and did not do in this foster care case."
Celes entered foster care at the age of 5, along with two older brothers and an older sister, said Joshua DeFreitas, who raised the two older brothers in his four-bedroom house in Nanakuli with his wife, April. Another Celes sister lived in the Philippines.
"The mom and dad was going through drugs and stuff," DeFreitas said. "The mom gave us the rights to adopt the kids as legal guardians."
The DeFreitases were willing to take Erwin, too, but they both worked and could not be home when Erwin got out of school each day, Joshua said.
"Somebody had to be home and responsible for the youngest one," Joshua said. "The two other ones were old enough to get themselves home from school."
The DeFreitases raised the older boys as their own and one now lives with his in-laws. When the other turned 18 three years ago, Joshua said he told him, "’It’s up to you. I’m not kicking you out.’ He still lives with us."
DeFreitas did not receive any information from DHS to give to the boys about adapting to life after foster care, he said.
But when the boys were younger, DeFreitas said, DHS social workers "are really protective of the foster kids when they’re underage, which is good."
Foster parents receive $529 per month per foster child, said Dani Ruiz, who worked as a DHS social worker aide when Celes and his siblings were taken from their parents.
Ruiz also is DeFreitas’ niece and asked him to care for the two older boys, which seemed to be a good fit since DeFreitas is an assistant football coach and head junior varsity basketball coach and also helps the girls softball team and boys baseball team at Nanakuli High School.
For DeFreitas, "It wasn’t about the income," he said. "It was never that way. I raised the two boys just like my own sons."
Ruiz estimates that she and her husband, Santo, have taken 100 girls into their four-bedroom home in Kapolei over the 11 years they have served as foster parents.
Most were temporary, emergency placements. But the Ruizes also have adopted three siblings and have custody of four girls and their brother.
"When I get them, they’re often behind a grade or more, have court issues, often substance abuse issues," Dani Ruiz said. "I get them to work through a lot of it by the time they’re 18."
Over the years, Ruiz has learned to do her own research to find services that will help her foster children survive on their own.
When the children turn 18, "90 percent of them want to leave on their birthday to be with their biological families," Ruiz said. "They assume their parents are getting better and are going through the same kind of changes they are. But nearly all of them realize that all the reasons they were removed have not changed. Almost all of them call me within a month — two at the longest — asking, ‘Please can I come back?’ … I say, ‘Of course.’"