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Hawaiians at risk: Keiki locked in cycle of foster care system

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    Eunice Mershon, top left, meets her daughter, Robbie, after school at Living Way Church in Wailuku, where Robbie participates in a tutoring program.


    Maui resident Eunice Mershon, embraces her 13-year-old daughter, Robbie. Robbie and her two brothers were removed from their mother’s care by the state last year was Mershon struggled with crystal meth and homelessness. Mershon — who says she has been sober since her children were removed in March — was reunited with Robbie in July; she and husband Robert are now trying to get their sons back as well.


    Above, Robbie is flanked by pals Jehnaiah Kaahumanu Hoopai, left, and Shanalee Mollena as she heads to tutoring.


    Mershon talks with George Hoopai about the difficulties of parenting after arguing with her daughter at Living Way Church. Both Mershon and Hoopai have had their children placed in the foster care system.


    Eunice Mershon meets with David Cacpal, her case manager at Child and Family Service.


    Maui resident George Hoopai with his daughter, Jehnaiah Kaahumanu Hoopai, at Living Way Church in Wailuku. Hoopai’s two children have spent time in foster care and are now living with relatives.

It’s a problem that has long defied a solution.

For years the percentage of Native Hawaiians in the state’s foster care system has significantly topped the percentage of Hawaiians in the overall population of children statewide.

Those with Hawaiian blood make up half the roughly 2,300 children who have been removed from their families because of abuse and neglect concerns and currently are in foster care. Yet Hawaiians comprise only a third of the statewide population of minors.

No one knows for sure why Hawaiians persistently have been overrepresented in the foster system, though the disproportionality mirrors the portrait of Hawaiians in other negative socioeconomic indicators, such as higher adult incarceration and juvenile arrest rates and lower education and employment levels.

Some say poverty — Hawaiians are overrepresented in that area as well — is at the root of the problem.

“If we were to wipe out poverty, we would reduce those numbers,” Susan Chandler, a professor with the University of Hawaii’s College of Social Sciences, said of the foster care disproportionality. Chandler also is a former director of the Department of Human Services, which oversees the child welfare system.

Others, including some Hawaiians, say bias plays a major role, particularly when considering how Hawaiian children fare once in foster care.

Over each of the past five fiscal years, Hawaiians remained in foster care longer than the average time for all children and were reunified with their families at substantially lower rates than non-Hawaiians, according to DHS data.

Hawaiians also aged out of the system at a greater rate than non-Hawaiians, meaning they reached adult age and left foster care without being reunited with their families or permanently placed with other ones. Aging out is considered the least desirable outcome for a foster child.

Though the disproportionate number of Hawaiians in the state’s foster population and the disparity in outcomes have persisted for years, the state has made little progress in improving the percentages.

Experts say the statistics indicate a problem — but not why there’s a problem. The causes likely are varied and complex, they add.

“Disproportionality is much like having a fire alarm go off,” said Jesse Russell, chief program officer for the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. “It means that something is happening that shouldn’t be happening. Your goal should be figuring out where the fire is and then putting the fire out.”

DHS officials say they are trying to do that.

They acknowledge that the data show Hawaiians are overrepresented. But they caution that the numbers might overstate the problem and that the underlying reasons could reflect “much broader societal issues,” such as access to resources, that DHS has no control over.

“Everyone is concerned about it, trying to figure out what the causes are and what we can do,” said Rachel Thorburn, acting program development administrator for Child Welfare Services, the arm of DHS that oversees the foster system. “But it’s really hard … because it’s a complex problem.”

Search for solutions

Little research has been published on the reasons behind the long history of overrepresentation among Hawaiians in the foster system.

But service providers, advocates, scholars and others increasingly say more culturally appropriate responses are needed, given that more mainstream, Western-oriented strategies have shown little success in reducing the disproportionality.

With that in mind, the state and nonprofit organizations in recent years have launched several initiatives that use Hawaiian cultural values and practices to try to help strengthen families. While some programs have shown promise anecdotally, their long-term effects remain unclear.

The heightened focus on cultural values similarly is being used to address the overrepresentation of Hawaiians in the juvenile justice system, where, according to a 2012 study, they are more likely to be arrested than any other ethnic group. The study, authored by Karen Umemoto, a UH professor with the College of Social Sciences, and three colleagues, found patterns of disparate treatment of Hawaiians that were similar to a major analysis of the juvenile justice system 15 years earlier.

The studies mentioned the typical factors, such as drug use, child abuse and economic hardship, that contribute to youth getting into trouble. But for Hawaiians two additional reasons were cited: political disenfranchisement and the erosion of strong family authority after colonization.

Even as cultural approaches are gaining traction, DHS is continuing to gather and analyze data to better understand the underlying causes of overrepresentation.

“We are not certain that there is bias in our system,” Thorburn told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “If there is, we want to address it, and we do want to respond to all potential issues and support every family and every child in their culture and provide culturally enriched and embracing programs. We’re going to do that regardless of whether or not the problem of disproportionality is ours.”

The efforts by the state and nonprofits have come as disproportionality nationally has received more attention, especially over the past decade, fueled by research showing significant overrepresentation among blacks and Native Americans.

Suspicion of bias

The local initiatives also have come amid heightened political activism by Native Hawaiians, who are tackling high-profile, hot-button issues such as sovereignty and protecting cultural grounds from development.

In interviews with more than a dozen Hawaiian parents who have had children in the foster system, they spoke of a widespread perception among Hawaiians that the system is biased. If everything else is equal, DHS social workers and other decision-makers are more likely to push for removing Hawaiian children from their homes than non-Hawaiians, the parents told the Star-Advertiser.

“That’s a very common belief,” said Maui resident Eunice Mershon, whose three children were removed by the state last year as she was dealing with a crystal meth problem and homelessness.

“I was on the front lines; I was in the ring seeing that happen,” agreed Maui resident George Hoopai, 46, whose two children spent time in foster care and are now living with relatives.

Mershon, who entered a residential drug treatment program, said she has been sober since the state removed her two sons, 9 and 15, and then-12-year-old daughter in March. She was reunited with the girl in July, and Mershon and her husband, Robert, are trying to get their sons back as well.

The parents who spoke to the newspaper acknowledged that they were not blameless. They said their poor choices, such as drug use, contributed to the state’s decision to take custody of their children.

But their long-held suspicions of bias received a boost several years ago after Meripa Godinet, a UH faculty member, and two other researchers published a report based on an examination of DHS data from 2004 and 2005. Godinet, an associate professor in UH’s Myron B. Thompson School of Social Work, and her co-authors concluded in their December 2011 study that Hawaiians were at a disadvantage in their interactions with the child welfare system.

They found that although Hawaiians were more frequently removed from their homes because of neglect — compared with non-Hawaiians, who had higher rates of physical abuse — the Hawaiians were less likely to be reunified with their families.

They also determined that being Hawaiian predicted a greater length of time in the foster system, more frequent movement from home to home and greater risk of re-entering the system.

Godinet told the Star-Advertiser that she was surprised the state hasn’t made more progress tackling the disparity problem. “It’s deeper than just what we see on the surface,” she said. “There’s a lot more that needs to be addressed.”

Poverty’s burden

National studies have shown poverty plays a key role in overrepresentation, though some experts caution that unique factors involving Hawaii’s indigenous people might obscure the picture here.

Researchers generally have found a strong relationship between low-income households and child maltreatment. The studies also have shown that the reporting of maltreatment is much more likely to occur for children in poverty compared with those from higher-income households.

Poor families tend to rely on more public services, such as food stamps and Medicaid, that bring them in contact with workers who are required to report signs of abuse or neglect, creating more opportunities for such reporting. Wealthier families, the researchers say, have fewer such contacts, and when questions of abuse arise, the parents usually have the resources to pay for services like counseling that can help keep their children out of the system.

In Hawaii, 18 percent of Native Hawaiian families with children live in poverty, compared with 12 percent of all families with children statewide, according to census data.

Since 2005 the percentage of Hawaiians in foster care has averaged 48 percent annually. In fiscal year 2015 about 1,100 of the 2,321 children — or 48.4 percent — were Hawaiian. By contrast, about 104,000 of the nearly 306,000 children living in the islands — 34 percent — are Hawaiian, according to census statistics.

Not all the data on Hawaiians reflect negative trends.

The average length of stay for Hawaiians in foster care, for example, dropped 22 percent over the past five fiscal years, though at nearly 17 months it is still higher than the 15-month average for non-Hawaiians.

Additionally, 20 percent of Hawaiian foster children were adopted over those five years, compared with 14 percent for non-Hawaiians.

Tracing roots of crisis

Cultural practitioners and others say Hawaii’s overrepresentation problem must be viewed through the lens of history — the same perspective that is essential to understanding the overrepresentation of Hawaiians in prison, the juvenile justice system, homelessness, poverty and other socioeconomic indicators.

As the islands were settled by outsiders, Hawaiians were exploited and displaced from their lands, and their culture was denigrated and marginalized, according to the practitioners.

Such marginalization, they said, led to a fraying of Hawaiian cultural values over successive generations, undermining a sense of identity and eventually creating the need for government services where none existed before.

Prior to the establishment of a government foster system, the Hawaiian ohana, or extended family, typically cared for children when the birth parents were unable to do so. Kupuna (elders) in their 80s and 90s say there was no need for such things as foster homes or homeless shelters when they were growing up.

“Everything historically was done in and through the family,” said Jan Hanohano Dill, president of Partners in Development Foundation, which runs culture-based programs to assist the Hawaiian community. “That has broken down, and even though we have kind of a vestigial extended-family system, it’s not as powerful as before.”

DHS officials cite multiple efforts the agency has undertaken to ensure its actions are culturally appropriate and have resulted in a reduction in the number of Hawaiians entering foster care. The latter has mirrored a dramatic decline in the past decade in the overall foster population in Hawaii.

DHS workers also have undergone training to better understand the Hawaiian culture, and later this year the department plans to hold aha, or gatherings, in Hawaiian communities around the state to discuss ideas about improving the system. The agency held similar meetings in Hawaiian communities in 2010.

Helping the agency’s efforts, the child welfare staff has a greater percentage of Hawaiians (25 percent) than in the overall state population (21 percent), according to DHS officials and census data.

“We want to make sure our workforce ideally is reflective of the people we’re serving and can help inform a response,” DHS’ Thornburn said. “We’re conscious of that and see that as a strength.”

For Mershon, the Maui mother, staff makeup is not a concern. She has her sights set on one thing: reuniting the rest of her family.

“That would be better than a pot of gold,” she said.


Rob Perez reported this project with the support of the Fund for Journalism on Child Well-Being and the National Health Journalism Fellowship. Both are programs of the Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalism.

This project also was done in collaboration with Oiwi TV, the Native Hawaiian-owned and operated media outlet that tells stories from a Hawaiian perspective. For more video, see

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