By simply submitting a one-page form, the family of a 9-year-old Hilo girl who starved to death in 2016 was able to remove the child from the public school system to educate her at home despite a long and troubled history with the state’s child welfare system.
Shaelynn Lehano-Stone was removed from Hilo Union School just seven months before she died — and about three weeks after prosecutors say her parents and maternal grandmother began failing to provide adequate food and water to the child.
The absence of regular contact with teachers and other school officials, who are required by state law to report any suspicions of child abuse, left a huge void in Shaelynn’s life.
No one outside the family was regularly monitoring her well-being, even as she became emaciated from malnourishment.
The void was all the more disconcerting given the family’s history.
During Shaelynn’s short life, she had been placed in foster care four times, including right after she was born, because of safety concerns, according to details of her history that have been disclosed publicly for the first time.
In January 2009, when she was not yet 3 years old, Child Welfare Services workers determined she wasn’t thriving under her parents’ care and noted she had lost 4 pounds in the previous two years, likely due to inadequate calorie intake, according to CWS. Shaelynn was placed in foster care for a third time.
A child that young should be gaining — not losing — weight, and a loss of 4 pounds would be a major red flag, pediatricians say.
Six months later in August 2009, CWS confirmed the mother had threatened the girl, who still was in foster care.
A TROUBLED HISTORY
The family of Shaelynn Lehano-Stone, who died on Hawaii island in June 2016 from starvation, had multiple interactions with the state’s Child Welfare Services system during her short life. Her parents, Kevin Lehano and Tiffany Stone, and her maternal grandmother, Henrietta Stone, have been charged with second-degree murder in connection with the 9-year-old’s death. All pleaded not guilty.
>> September 2006: Shaelynn placed in temporary foster care shortly after birth because of safety concerns.
>> June 2007: Shaelynn reunited with parents under CWS supervision.
>> September 2007: Child removed from family again, then returned in October 2007 under CWS supervision.
>> May 2008: Family supervision ends.
>> August 2008: CWS gets report mother allegedly physically abused, threatened daughter. Not enough evidence to confirm allegations.
>> January 2009: CWS confirms Shaelynn failing to thrive under parents’ care. She lost 4 pounds in two years, likely due to inadequate calorie intake. Placed in foster care for third time. Services, including parenting education, domestic violence classes, provided to family.
>> August 2009: CWS confirms mother threatened to abuse daughter, who is still in foster care.
>> 2011: Shaelynn reunited with parents. Four weeks later, mother decides she can’t care for child, gives custody to Henrietta Stone via power of attorney. Decision based on child’s negative foster-care experiences, mother says. Family strengthening services provided to grandmother, child.
>> August 2014: CWS receives report of possible abuse or neglect against parents and grandmother. Based on phone assessment, Oahu intake worker determines threat to child moderate, refers case to voluntary case management. Face-to-face assessment done with parents, but staff efforts to arrange one with grandmother, who has custody of Shaelynn, unsuccessful. Case management services, such as counseling, offered to family but refused. CWS does not have records on whether family gets comparable services from local nonprofit.
>> Oct. 23, 2015: Shaelynn no longer getting adequate food, water, prosecutors say.
>> Nov. 15, 2015: Grandmother pulls Shaelynn from Hilo Union School to home-school.
>> June 28, 2016: Shaelynn found emaciated, unconscious at Hilo apartment; dies several hours later. CWS probe finds evidence of physical neglect, medical neglect, failure to thrive, psychological abuse, psychological neglect and physical abuse on part of mother, father and grandmother.
>> July 2017: Kevin Lehano, Tiffany Stone, Henrietta Stone indicted for second-degree murder. Their alleged failure to properly care for Shaelynn traces to late October, according to indictment. Cases pending.
Source: Hawaii Department of Human Services, court documents
And in August 2014, less than two years before she died, CWS received yet another report of possible abuse or neglect against the parents and Shaelynn’s maternal grandmother, who had custody of her, according to the details provided by the Department of Human Services, which oversees CWS. The information was requested by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser under federal disclosure requirements involving fatal or near-fatal abuse cases.
The girl was not removed from her family as a result of the 2014 report because CWS determined the risk to the child was moderate, according to DHS. The family was offered services through a voluntary case management program but refused them.
Agonizing final days
About a year later, the grandmother on Nov. 15, 2015, filed the one-page form to home-school Shaelynn. The state has no authority to deny a home-schooling request, even if the parent or guardian has no background in teaching.
Seven months after Shaelynn was pulled from her elementary school, she was discovered unconscious and near death on June 28, 2016, in the Hilo apartment she shared with her grandmother. Her parents lived in the same building.
Kevin Lehano and Tiffany Stone, the parents, and Henrietta Stone, the grandmother, have been charged with second-degree murder for allegedly starving Shaelynn to death. They have pleaded not guilty.
A post-fatality investigation by CWS determined that Shaelynn suffered multiple forms of abuse, an indication her final days were unimaginably agonizing and torturous.
The agency confirmed physical neglect, medical neglect, failure to thrive, psychological abuse, psychological neglect and physical abuse, all inflicted by her mother, father and grandmother, according to DHS. A maternal second cousin “threatened neglect,” the department said.
‘On nobody’s radar’
The disturbing revelations in Shaelynn’s case reflect a major gap in the protection of vulnerable children in Hawaii. When parents or guardians with a history of child abuse or neglect pull their children from public school to be educated at home, no one from the state monitors the physical well-being of the youngsters.
Experts and advocates say that gap must be closed.
“I would think it’s common sense that, despite the concerns of home-schooling advocates, the state needs some system of regulating home-schooling, especially for families that have a documented history of abuse or neglect,” Christopher Lubienski, education policy professor at Indiana University, said in an email to the Star-Advertiser. “Home-schooling should not be used as a shield, especially in cases like this.”
A person working in the child welfare arena who was familiar with Shaelynn’s case but who wasn’t authorized to speak about it publicly said many agencies — not just DHS — dropped the ball.
“Everybody thought somebody else had eyes on this kid, and nobody did,” the person told the Star-Advertiser. “It was a complete system failure. She was on nobody’s radar.”
Hawaii, which has about 3,000 students being educated at home, actually has good home-school laws compared with many other states, according to the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, which advocates for reforms around the country.
Hawaii requires annual progress reports at the end of each school year and students must be assessed through standardized testing in grades 3, 5, 8 and 10. The majority of states do not require progress reports or such testing.
But no state in the country has a system for flagging parents or guardians who have a record of child abuse and want to pull their children to home-school, according to Rachel Coleman, the coalition’s executive director.
Various attempts by states to establish such a system have fizzled, Coleman said, largely because of the power of the home-school lobby.
“They get very upset when anyone says ‘home-school’ and ‘child abuse’ in the same sentence,” Coleman told the Star-Advertiser.
The home-school lobby came out in force earlier this year when Sen. Kaialii Kahele (D-Hilo) introduced a bill designed to flag people with child abuse records who wanted to home-school their children.
The legislation referenced the coalition’s national database of child-abuse cases linked to home-schooling. The database lists four Hawaii cases, including those of Peter Boy Kema and Shaelynn Lehano-Stone.
Senate Bill 2323, which didn’t even survive its first hearing, would have subjected all home-school applicants to a background check and given the state Department of Education the power to approve or deny a request for anyone, though the intent was to flag parents with child-abuse records.
The current system gives parents the right to home-school simply by filling out a form. The state cannot deny that right.
Hundreds of home-school advocates wrote, called or testified to oppose SB 2323, describing it as government overreach and a nattempt to circumvent families’ constitutional rights.
Peter Kamakawiwoole, who was home-schooled in Hawaii and now is an attorney for the Home School Legal Defense Association in Washington, D.C., said the bill stemmed from an inaccurate assumption that home-schooled children are commonly isolated in a way that fosters abusive behaviors.
The vast majority are not isolated, participating in many educational and other activities that put students in regular contact with peers and adults, Kamakawiwoole said in written testimony.
And by requiring background checks of all those seeking to home-school, the bill “draws no distinction between fit parents — who are presumed to act in the best interests of their keiki — and unfit parents (like Peter Boy’s …) who have forfeited that presumption,” he wrote.
Hawaii County Prosecutor Mitch Roth, whose office helped draft the home-school bill, said all sides need to work together to come up with a way to protect these vulnerable children.
“The status quo is unacceptable,” Roth said. “We’re dealing with children’s lives. We have to do better.”
Families and lives at stake
In the handling of Shaelynn’s case, some have questioned why the agency in 2014 didn’t place her in foster care again — particularly given the family’s troubled history — once concerns were raised about her safety. Instead, the agency kept the family intact, referring them to the voluntary case management (VCM) program. Some believe DHS is too quick to go that route.
“VCM cases are supposed to involve minor neglect, but I have seen two cases where a kid had a fractured skull that the department tried to place in VCM,” said Frank O’Brien, an attorney who has extensive experience in child abuse litigation. “It helps their statistics if a case does not end up in court.”
The VCM program is part of what is called a differential response system that enables DHS to keep families intact if the risk to the child is moderate or less. In those cases, the families are offered voluntary services to help them address problems. The idea is that children are better off and less traumatized if they can remain with their families — as long as the risk is not too great.
If the risk is too high, the agency does a formal investigation, the child typically is placed in foster care and the court-supervised process becomes more adversarial.
“Our differential response system allows us to match families with the appropriate level of services and support,” DHS spokeswoman Keopu Reelitz said in an email. “One goal is to focus on prevention and strengthening families. We want to make our best efforts to engage families even when there is low or moderate risk (before we get to harm or high risk of harm) to prevent situations from escalating and to protect children.”
Shaelynn’s death heightened questions about the state of affairs for the agency’s office in Hilo.
CWS social workers in East Hawaii have such high caseloads and are responsible for such a large geographic area that the situation is considered a crisis. To address that, various advocates banded together recently and persuaded the Legislature to consider a bill establishing a pilot program in East Hawaii capping the number of at-risk children a social worker can supervise at 20 — less than half the typical case load.
The House and Senate have passed differing versions of the bill and have to resolve those differences before they can send a measure to Gov. David Ige for consideration.