Nivia Bruner, a social worker, lasted only five months at the state’s Child Welfare Services office in Kona before quitting in frustration three years ago.
The work environment was so toxic, Bruner said, that the Department of Human Services, which includes CWS, brought in a psychologist and then a retired judge to help address the personnel problems.
“I loved the job,” Bruner, 65, now retired on the mainland, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. But the dysfunction within the office proved too much, she added.
Just a few months before Bruner quit in 2015, the Kona office’s director resigned as well. She had been on the job only five months, too.
The resignations within that small office reflect what has been a larger, long-standing problem at the state’s child-protection agency: attracting and retaining qualified employees, including social workers, who are the backbone of the system.
NO SIGNS OF IMPROVEMENT
The federal government recently evaluated the state’s Child Welfare Services system and found no improvement from the last time the system was evaluated in 2009. In the seven outcome categories reviewed in 2017, the state failed to be in substantial conformity in all seven, the same as eight years earlier. In seven categories listed as systemic factors, the state met the threshold in five, the same as in 2009.
>> Children are first and foremost protected from abuse and neglect
>> Children are safely maintained in their homes whenever possible and appropriate
>> Children have permanence and stability in their living situations
>> Continuity of family relationships and connections is preserved for children
>> Families have enhanced capacity to provide for their children’s needs
>> Children receive appropriate services to meet their educational needs
>> Children receive adequate services to meet their physical and mental health needs
>> Statewide information system
>> Case review system
>> Quality assurance system
>> Staff and provider training
>> Service array and resource development
>> Agency responsiveness in community
>> Foster and adoptive parent licensing, recruitment and retention
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children & Families
The staff turnover problem and other difficulties faced by CWS were cited by the federal government recently after it completed its third major evaluation of the agency since 2003.
The latest results — like the previous ones — were not good.
In the 14 categories that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services analyzed in 2017, the state agency showed no improvement from 2009, the last time the federal government did a major review of CWS.
In all seven of the main outcomes that the regulators evaluated, including one titled “Children are first and foremost protected from abuse and neglect,” CWS failed to meet the thresholds set by the federal government. In the review jargon, that meant the agency was not in “substantial conformity” with any of the seven categories.
In 2009, CWS also failed to meet any of those thresholds.
In the seven categories described as systemic factors, including quality assurance and foster parent licensing, recruiting and retention, Hawaii fared better.
It was in substantial conformity in five of the seven. But that was identical to its 2009 marks, indicating no improvement in those measures as well.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” Bruner said.
The U.S. government’s Administration for Children & Families, an arm of Health and Human Services, is charged with conducting major reviews of state child welfare agencies nationally, gauging the effectiveness of their systems and compliance with federal requirements.
The evaluators review a sampling of cases for each category, and if the agency fails to meet compliance thresholds in 95 percent of the cases, it is deemed not in substantial conformity for that category.
In analyzing whether “children are first and foremost protected from abuse and neglect,” for instance, Hawaii met the threshold in 83 percent of 24 maltreatment cases surveyed, missing the mark in four of them, according to the federal report. The problem, the report said, was that Hawaii fell short in initiating timely investigations in the four cases.
Kayle Perez, social services division administrator for the department, noted that CWS has made positive changes since the last review in 2009, but some will take more time before the effects show up in the evaluations.
The department, for instance, recently revived a partnership with the University of Hawaii to train social workers for eventual employment at DHS. Nine students gradated from the program last year and are now working for the agency.
Perez also cautioned against focusing too much on the results of a single evaluation category, like the abuse and neglect one, stressing that the overall child-welfare system has many parts.
“There’s a whole lot of work being put into keeping kids safe,” she said. “Just that one measure is not representative of what we do here. To simplify it to that one category is not accurate.”
Perez also mentioned that Hawaii has been recognized nationally for some of its child-welfare practices, including placing abused or neglected children with relatives, and keeping foster kids connected to their families and culture.
The federal regulators noted that Hawaii’s system is “built on strong family and community resources, strong partnerships and the effective involvement of stakeholders.”
Asked why the 2017 evaluation shows no improvements from the 2009 scores, Perez said the agency still is recovering from the fallout of the state’s fiscal crisis in 2009 and 2010, when the department lost dozens of positions, endured major budget cuts and had to eliminate or reduce services, including those that assisted families.
“We continue to try to work on rebuilding some of the programs we had back then,” Perez said, adding that nonprofits similarly are recovering from cutbacks, affecting the community’s overall safety net.
One area that has proved especially challenging for the department is in hiring and retaining staff.
The regulators cited significant turnover and vacancies in some areas of the state.
At the end of 2017, about a quarter of CWS’ 180 positions for social workers and human-services professionals were vacant, according to DHS.
Turnover has been particularly high among supervisors, who the department relies on to ensure required work gets done.
“When you don’t have stability with supervisors, that’s a big deal,” said Heide Lilo, director for CWS’ quality improvement project.
Other problems regulators cited were insufficient quality and frequency of caseworker visits, children remaining in foster care beyond 15 months without a viable goal and maltreatment allegations in pending cases not being formally investigated.
Regarding the latter, CWS officials said the allegations are checked by workers assigned to those cases but not always through a formal process.
The review doesn’t find that the children are unsafe but that the state needs to follow proper channels to ensure data are captured accurately, according to Lilo.
Marilyn Yamamoto, an advocate for parents with children in the CWS system, was not surprised by the federal findings.
“The department is not qualified to make decisions that have such a serious impact upon children and families in Hawaii,” she said. “There is a great risk of victimizing innocent families and overlooking parents who actually abuse their children.”
No financial penalties
Despite its poor marks historically, Hawaii has not suffered any financial consequences because of them.
Following the 2003 and 2009 reviews, the state successfully implemented improvement plans and was not subject to a penalty, according to Monique Richards, a spokeswoman for the Administration for Children & Families.
The state currently is working on an improvement plan to address the most recent review.
Hawaii is not alone in its history of poor marks.
In the 2009 review, the state was one of 39 that did not meet any of the seven outcome thresholds, according to a 2015 study by the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego and First Star, a nonprofit that advocates for abused children.
Of those 39 states, 21 have undergone another review since then, and 15, including Hawaii, showed no improvement in the outcomes measures, according to federal data.
“The states are finding time after time that there’s really no consequences” for not meeting the federal standards, Elisa Weichel, the institute’s administrative director, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “We’re thinking the whole (review) system needs to be scrapped.”
Yamamoto, the advocate, believes Hawaii’s history of poor marks underscores serious problems that still persist within CWS.
The agency will develop another improvement plan that passes federal muster, then revert to its old ways, escaping any accountability, she said.
Bruner, the retired social worker, posed a question for the state in light of the latest review.
“Children are our future,” she said. “Why aren’t we protecting them better?”
To read the federal report, see bit.ly/2HZvcKQ.