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Editorial | Island Voices

State helps foster kids even after they ‘age out’

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When former foster youth Erwin Celes committed suicide, it deeply affected his family, friends and the many people who help at-risk teens.

We will never know for sure why Erwin took his life; friends said the tipping point occurred when his girlfriend committed suicide, as reported by the media. Until recently he was working, training to become a mixed martial arts fighter and planning to attend college. According to his friends, Erwin had a sunny disposition and positive goals and dreams.

Readers of a Star-Advertiser article ("Gap in foster care cited," Oct. 31) may get the false impression that the state abandons foster teens like Erwin on their 18th birthdays.

The truth is, these young people continue having access to a wide range of help, such as support groups, funding for college or vocational schools, Medicaid health insurance, food stamps, psychological counseling and more.

It’s also true that:

» The Department of Human Services and its community partners safely reduced the number of children in foster care by more than half since 2005.

» Hawaii’s child re-abuse rate dropped by more than half during that same period.

» The number of former foster youth pursuing higher education rose from 185 in 2005 to 342 this year.

» The number of teens who "age-out" of foster care is at an all-time low.

» Hawaii’s efforts to help foster teens transition into independent living have received excellent reviews from the National Resource Center on Youth Services.

To shed light on Erwin’s case, DHS has posted his Child Protective Services records online (www.hawaii.gov/dhs).

This is similar to what DHS did for the first time in 2005 when we released the records of "Peter Boy" Kema, a Big Island child abuse victim reported missing in 1997 and presumed dead. It is only through public disclosure — withholding only what the law requires us to withhold — that people can make informed evaluations about what can and cannot be done by DHS and others to prevent such tragedies.

You will learn from Erwin’s records that he:

» Received counseling and support from his social worker, as well as family finding and family connection services;

» Began independent living skills training in 2005;

» Attended Youth Challenge and was offered Youth Circles with other foster teens;

» Remained connected with his birth family and had others helping him succeed;

» Was living in a stable home with people he considered family.

DHS firmly believes every foster child deserves "a family for life" so they can receive love and support throughout the years. As part of this effort, DHS in 2006 used a federal bonus for increasing the number of children adopted from foster care and invested that money in efforts to adopt harder-to-place children, such as sibling groups, children with special needs and older foster youth. In fact, DHS earned federal adoption bonuses in five of the past seven years for increasing adoptions of foster children.

DHS also worked hard over the past eight years to ensure there is no longer any financial disincentive for adopting foster children.

In addition, DHS worked with Gov. Linda Lingle and the Legislature in 2008 to approve Act 198, which gives former foster youth additional time to apply for and receive higher education benefits; and Act 199, which ensures that foster children have the opportunity to stay with relatives or hanai family members who are willing and able to provide safe and nurturing homes.

Despite this progress, Erwin’s death shows that everyone must continually seek to improve the child welfare system.

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