Hawaii island resident Pua Kealoha was puzzled when she received a letter from the state in March suggesting she was abusing a child.
The unsigned, one-page correspondence from the Department of Human Services didn’t specifically identify an alleged perpetrator, but it was addressed to the 64-year-old grandmother, who lives with her 17-year-old grandson in Pahoa.
It noted that the agency received a report alleging child abuse or neglect in Kealoha’s family, had reviewed the report and concluded that the situation in her home “may present a risk of harm” to her child or children.
The letter contained no details — no dates, no names of alleged victims, no specifics on what was alleged.
At the time, DHS officials had not even spoken to Kealoha about the allegations nor had they checked to see if they were credible.
Yet the letter said she had been referred to a nonprofit agency that provides family strengthening services.
The correspondence was sent even though a family guidance center at another state agency, the Department of Health, had been working with Kealoha and concluded she provided excellent care to her grandson.
In the March 22 letter, DHS informed the grandmother of 15 that if she chose not to participate in the voluntary family-strengthening program, the agency could initiate a child abuse investigation — a process with far-reaching implications if wrongdoing is confirmed.
So far this year, DHS has sent more than 1,500 form letters similar to Kealoha’s to parents and others caring for children throughout the state, informing them that a report of suspected abuse or neglect had been received and that the agency had determined the situation in their home may present a risk of harm to a child or children.
While informing the recipients that they have been referred for voluntary family services, the letters mention no details of the alleged abuse, nor has the agency at that point even spoken to the recipients or anyone else to check on the credibility of the accusations, typically phoned in to a hotline, DHS officials acknowledged. The accusations can be made anonymously.
Several mainland experts told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the department’s approach violates the law, including the federal requirement that a child welfare agency provide details of accusations upon initial contact — whether face-to-face or otherwise — with the alleged perpetrator.
That requirement applies whether the allegations trigger a full-blown abuse investigation or result in an alternative response such as offering counseling services because the accusations are less serious, according to federal guidelines, parent advocates and attorneys who deal with child welfare cases.
“This absolutely violates the spirit and (letter)” of the law, Jennifer Ani, a California attorney who represents families facing abuse allegations but is not involved with Kealoha’s case, said of the DHS process.
Department officials defended the approach, saying it does not violate federal law, helps identify the level of response needed, and is intended to spare families involved in low- to moderate-risk cases from ending up facing formal child abuse investigations. Such investigations can result in removal of children from their home — the most intrusive action that can be taken.
The letters are not intended to identify alleged perpetrators, the DHS officials said, but are part of the department’s process for trying to keep families together while determining the type of services that can help maintain a safe, stable environment for the child or children.
“What we are trying to do is not penalize the family by bringing them into the child welfare system,” which would happen if a full investigation is initiated, Kayle Perez, branch administrator for DHS’ Child Welfare Services, said in a phone interview.
DHS officials said they have been sending out various versions of the form letters since the department developed a so-called differential response system in 2005. That system is designed to provide counseling and other services to families in which the alleged abuse does not present immediate safety concerns for a child and the risk is deemed low to moderate, allowing the agency to divert cases away from the more adversarial process of a formal abuse investigation.
Child welfare advocates generally applaud the intent of the diversion system.
That system, including the form letters, was developed with the technical assistance of a contractor hired by the Administration for Children & Families, the federal entity that oversees state child welfare agencies, according to DHS officials, who said they were unaware of anyone taking issue with the language of the letters until now.
But as a result of the Star-Advertiser’s inquiry, they said they would consult with federal officials about the letter and related issues.
“They are well aware of our program here,” Perez told the newspaper.
She acknowledged that the letters could be construed as accusing the recipients of abuse.
That’s exactly how Kealoha read her letter.
Kealoha, who has had multiple dealings with the child welfare agency over the years, said she contacted PARENTS Inc., the nonprofit mentioned in her letter, to demand details of the allegations. She said she was told she could learn more if she attended a meeting in the nonprofit’s office — an offer she refused.
She said she instead contacted DHS, and a supervisor disclosed details of the allegations, which were phoned to the hotline and included late-night partying and drug use at her Pahoa home. Kealoha said the accusations were untrue.
DHS subsequently closed the case after determining the allegations were unsubstantiated and after receiving reports from the Health Department’s family center that Kealoha provided excellent care to her grandson, according to a May 23 email she received from Maria Jimenez, a DHS supervisor in its Hilo office.
“There is no open case in your name and you have rightfully been cleared of any wrongdoing,” Jimenez wrote in the email, apologizing that the letter “has caused you so much distress.”
DHS officials said they could not comment on the Kealoha case because of confidentiality regulations.
But they defended the process used to send out the diversion letters.
Asked why details of the allegations are excluded from the letters, the department said in an email that doing so maintains the confidentiality of the report, typically made to the hotline. A face-to-face meeting is required to confirm the identities of the named parties before details can be provided, according to DHS.
Asked why they don’t speak to the recipients before sending the letters, DHS officials said the intent is not to identify alleged perpetrators but to determine what services may be helpful to the family based on the assessed level of risk stemming from the accusations.
Once allegations of abuse or neglect are reported, DHS uses assessment tools to determine an appropriate response.
The first thing assessed is whether the accusations indicate that a child’s safety is immediately at risk, requiring immediate intervention by DHS, according to the department.
If there are no immediate safety factors, another tool is used to assess the level of risk, leading to a decision to send a diversion letter.
Department officials acknowledged that the letters are sent without first trying to determine the credibility of the accusations.
“We do not take the caller’s information as fact,” Perez said.
Marilyn Yamamoto, an advocate for parents accused of abuse, told the Star-Advertiser that she notified the Children & Families agency recently to complain that the DHS letters violate the law. A specialist from the federal agency’s San Francisco office emailed Yamamoto last month, saying “we are looking into Hawaii’s compliance.”
The Star-Advertiser could not determine the status of that inquiry last week, and DHS said it was unaware of any federal investigation.
Bill Grimm, a senior attorney for the National Center for Youth Law in California, agreed that the letters likely violate the law but said the federal government historically has not held states accountable for these types of violations.
“Their record does not suggest that they’re going to aggressively look at this,” Grimm said.
Based on her previous dealings with DHS, Kealoha doesn’t expect the state agency to change its approach.
“That department is so dysfunctional,” she said.
DHS Letter to Kealoha