When the state approved a foster parenting license for Zack and Krystina Morris in 2008, the child-rearing record of the young couple, who had just moved from New York, already had a major black mark.
New York officials five years earlier had found that the Morrises provided inadequate guardianship for their 4-month-old son after the infant stopped breathing; was rushed to the hospital with a fractured skull, bleeding in the brain and other injuries; and was diagnosed with shaken baby syndrome, according to New York documents. The parents failed to offer any explanation for the injuries, the records show.
New York’s child welfare agency subsequently determined that the baby would be at serious risk of harm if he stayed with his parents, and a judge ordered the infant to be placed in foster care, according to the records. The family eventually was reunited.
As serious as the 2003 incident was, it apparently did not appear on the state Department of Human Services’ radar when the agency certified the Morrises as Hawaii foster parents, raising new questions about the vetting process used to determine who gets approved to care for some of the state’s most vulnerable children.
Zack Morris eventually was convicted of sexually abusing three foster children, all boys, who were placed in his care by DHS from 2009 to 2011. The victims ranged in age from 11 to 16.
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser previously reported on documents from the criminal case and a 2014 negligence lawsuit filed on behalf of two victims, alleging the state didn’t heed numerous warning signs involving the Morrises before issuing them a license and renewing it several times.
But more recent court documents and other records reviewed by the newspaper have raised even more questions about the screening process, including whether DHS was even aware of the couple’s New York record when it approved the Morrises’ license.
The couple was the focus of two other New York abuse investigations, including one triggered when their son was hospitalized after a door supposedly fell on him, according to the records. The allegations were unconfirmed but still part of the couple’s New York file, which included the substantiated finding from 2003.
Name change conceals past
DHS officials declined comment on the Morris case, citing the confidentiality of foster care records and the pending litigation.
But in defending itself in the lawsuit, the state has said the 2003 incident wasn’t flagged during a background check because the check was done using the Morris name, according to Jon Jacobs, the attorney representing the two boys in the lawsuit. New York reported no abuse cases under the Morris name.
That’s because all three incidents happened when the couple was known as Florentino and Krystina Rios, according to the New York records. They legally changed their names to Zack and Krystina Morris just a few months before moving to Hawaii in 2008.
Zack Morris adored the TV character of the same name from the 1990s program “Saved by the Bell,” even bleaching his skin and changing his hair and eye color to try to appear more like him, according to the boys’ lawsuit.
Before granting the foster license, DHS should have been aware of the Morrises’ name change through checks of their fingerprints or Social Security numbers, according to attorneys and others questioning the adequacy of the agency checks.
DHS does fingerprint checks on applicants to see whether they have a criminal history. As part of a broad background check, the agency also submits names to child abuse registries in any state where the applicant has lived the prior five years. In addition, the department checks references and employment histories and inspects the applicant’s home.
“It just seems too simple-minded in this day and age to have a registry that checks only based upon name,” said Frank O’Brien, an attorney who has represented clients in lawsuits against DHS but is not involved in the Morris case.
Although the Morrises sought their foster license under their new names, they applied for Section 8 housing on Maui in 2008 using their old names – something that DHS should have checked, according to Jacobs. “They didn’t do any due diligence to find out what his previous name was,” he said.
While DHS officials declined to comment on the Morris case, they said they do the best they can to vet applicants, with the priority being the safety and well-being of the child.
“There’s a whole bunch of checks we go through to get as much information as we can on the family and all the adults in the home to come up with a picture as to whether they meet the licensing standards or not,” said Kayle Perez, administrator for DHS’ child welfare services branch. “We do the best we can to gather accurate information and make an assessment and decision on the licensing of the home.”
Cynthia Goss, the branch’s assistant administrator, said doing background checks on people who have moved from state to state or from another country can be difficult. Part of the challenge, she said, is getting information on a timely basis.
“Collecting good information — meaning information that is complete and that can help give us a complete picture on who this individual is — is a challenge versus someone who has lived in one state for all their life,” Goss said.
Complaints filed with police
Under Hawaii rules, a substantiated finding of abuse or neglect — an administrative ruling — would not necessarily make someone ineligible to be a foster parent, but would be considered in determining whether the person was fit to be one. Certain criminal convictions, such as for spouse abuse or child sex assault, would automatically make the applicant ineligible under federal regulations, according to DHS.
The department relies on scores of adults to care for more than 1,000 foster children throughout the islands each year. Growing demand makes foster parents especially in need on the Big Island and Maui.
In recent years Hawaii has been among the states with the lowest rates of confirmed cases of maltreatment of children while in foster care.
The court documents in the Morris case revealed that in March 2009, the first month a foster child was placed with the couple, the 14-year-old boy told a DHS social worker that Morris had sexually abused him.
One of the DHS workers who investigated the allegations subsequently filed a complaint with police alleging that Morris harassed her. The worker was one of six people who filed complaints with police from 2009 to 2011 about Morris’ behavior, according to the documents.
‘Systemic failures of epic proportions’
In 2009 DHS confirmed that Morris threatened to harm the 14-year-old foster child. But Morris appealed the ruling, and it was overturned the following year.
Still, the warning signs were enough to prompt one DHS social worker in 2010 to advise a colleague that they cannot stop the Morrises from getting a foster license, but “we can stop (them) from fostering any children,” according to one court document.
Yet none of the red flags seemed to hurt the Morrises’ standing as foster parents.
The state kept increasing the number of foster children the couple was authorized to care for, eventually certifying them in June 2011 for up to five. At that time the couple was living with their two biological children in a three-bedroom home, meaning potentially nine people could have been residing there.
The increased certifications came even though Morris was unemployed the entire time he was a foster parent. His wife worked various jobs, including as a waitress.
Less than three months after DHS placed the last foster child with the Morrises in July 2011, the agency issued a report describing Zack Morris as a “confirmed and untreated sex offender” and a threat to any child under his care, according to the court records. By then authorities had removed all the children, including his biological ones, from the home.
Morris was indicted a few weeks later, eventually pleaded no contest and is now serving a 20-year prison sentence.
Jacobs, the plaintiff attorney, said the Morris case revealed multiple problems with the state’s vetting process, leading to horrific outcomes for his clients. “It’s indicative of systemic failures of epic proportions,” Jacobs said.
TIMELINE OF ABUSE
>> June 2003: The 4-month-old son of Florentino and Krystina Rios is rushed to a New York hospital after he stops breathing. He is diagnosed with shaken baby syndrome. The parents are found to have provided inadequate guardianship to their son, who is temporarily placed in foster care.
>> January 2008: Florentino and Krystina Rios legally change their names to Zack and Krystina Morris. Zack Morris is obsessed with the TV character of the same name from the 1990s program “Saved by the Bell.”
>> May 2008: The Morrises and their son move from New York to Maui, initially living in a homeless shelter. Zack Morris is unemployed.
>> November 2008: Unaware of the couple’s New York child abuse record, the state Department of Human Services approves Zack and Krystina Morris’ license to be foster parents, authorizing them to care for up to two children. In January the total is increased to three.
>> March 2009: DHS places a 14-year-old boy with the Morris family. Within weeks the boy tells a DHS social worker that Zack Morris sexually abused him.
>> October 2009: DHS determines Morris threatened the foster child with physical harm, a ruling that is overturned the following year. The 14-year-old boy no longer is living with Morris. A DHS worker who investigated the Morris case files a complaint with police, alleging that Morris harassed her. It is the first of six police complaints filed against Morris over the next two years.
>> March 2010: DHS receives a second report of alleged abuse by Morris, this time involving his biological son. It determines the situation in their home presents a risk of harm to the child and refers the couple to counseling. The family now includes a biological daughter.
>> June 2010: DHS certifies the Morrises for up to four foster children. That same month, the couple files a lawsuit against DHS and a social worker, accusing them of mistreatment. It was the first of several lawsuits or complaints they would file.
>> September 2010: DHS social worker tells a colleague that they can’t stop the Morrises from getting a foster license, but they can stop the couple from getting foster children.
>> October 2010: A 16-year-old foster boy is placed with the couple.
>> June 2011: DHS certifies that the Morrises can care for up to five foster children.
>> July 2011: DHS places the 11-year-old brother of the 16-year-old with the Morris family.
>> August 2011: Both foster children disclose that they have been sexually abused by Morris. The brothers are removed from the home.
>> September 2011: DHS issues a report describing Morris as a “confirmed and untreated sex offender” and a threat to any child under his care. His two biological children are removed from the home.
>> October 2011: Morris is indicted on multiple counts of sex assault, attempted sex assault and felony abuse of a household member.
>> February 2012: DHS revokes the Morrises’ foster parenting license.
>> February 2014: Zack Morris is sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Source: Court documents, Star-Advertiser research