Star-Advertiser: ‘Hawaiians at Risk’ Part 1 & 2

Updated 1/11/16
Excerpts from Rob Perez’s “Hawaiians at Risk: Keiki Locked in Cycle of Foster Care System” Part 1
FIRST OF TWO PARTS
Star-Advertiser, 10 Jan. 2016
Read the full article here.

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. 

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Read the full article on the Star-Advertiser site.

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Excerpts from Rob Perez’s “Hawaiians at Risk: Healing Efforts Return to Roots” Part 2 (Star-Advertiser, 11 Jan. 2016):

The healing sessions are so intense and emotionally draining that the man who oversees them usually schedules just one a day.

Two sessions leave him mentally exhausted.

Under the firm but gentle guidance of Wayde Hoapili Lee, a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner, the youths meet privately with their parents, guardians or others they are close to, confessing past wrongs, seeking forgiveness and expressing unconditional love.

The baring of souls happens around a long table that is the focal point of a facility tucked into the back of Waianae Valley. The rural setting serves as a tranquil backdrop for the sessions, where tears, Kleenex and hugs are plentiful.

Lee runs an innovative 21-day residential program for troubled youths, who mostly have had run-ins with the law over truancy, running away, behavior issues or minor drug offenses.

The curriculum revolves around the Hawaiian cultural practice called hooponopono, an intensely self-reflective process that stresses healing and strengthening relationships to restore balance in one’s life.

“This is a very unorthodox program, but it’s not new,” Lee said. “Our ancestors have been doing this for centuries.”

Lee’s program, known as Wahi Kana‘aho, is one of a small but growing number of Hawaiian culture-based initiatives aimed at helping Hawaiian youths who are overrepresented in the state’s foster care and juvenile justice systems. Some also involve parents.

For at least the past decade, the number of Hawaiians in both systems has been disproportionate to their numbers in the overall youth population. Few inroads have been made in rectifying the overrepresentation.

Cultural connection

Hoping to change that, the state and nonprofit groups have partnered in recent years to initiate programs like Lee’s, with the goal of reconnecting the youths and families to their culture.

Though the programs typically serve more than Hawaiians, they use Hawaiian cultural practices and values to try to build self-esteem, a sense of place and stronger family bonds.

The initiatives are designed to offset what their founders believe are the ill effects from the marginalization and degradation of the Hawaiian culture dating back generations. They liken the cultural disconnect to canoe voyagers floating aimlessly at sea, with no anchor to ground them or navigator to steer them.

By reconnecting the youths and families to the traditions of their ancestors, the hope is that such a rekindling will restore a sense of pride and confidence in the participants, providing them with a more positive foundation for making everyday decisions.

The approach, though relatively new and mostly untested, is gaining acceptance.

One problem, though, is sustainability.

Although the initiatives have shown promising results anecdotally, they have not been around long enough to develop the kind of track record and outcome data that foundations, government agencies and other funding organizations seek, according to people who run and evaluate such initiatives.

The nonprofits need funds to sustain the services, yet funders want to know their money is going to programs with proven, evidence-based successes.

In the foster care and juvenile justice arenas, which sometimes include the same youths, the questions of effectiveness center on whether the programs make a difference in the long run.

Measuring success

One program showing positive results is Ke Kama Pono, a residential safe house for teen offenders that incorporates Hawaiian practices into its activities. Since the Partners in Development Foundation began operating the Kalaeloa facility in 2009, the recidivism rate — the teens were tracked for three years after leaving the program — has been 37 percent, according to Alison Masutani of the foundation.

In contrast, the Pew Charitable Trusts found a recidivism rate of 75 percent when it examined three-year outcomes of juveniles released from the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility between 2005 and 2007.

The issue of how to measure effectiveness prompted operators of a Big Island program called Aha Koa to take a break last year.

The program used Hawaiian cultural practices, like traditional navigation techniques, as teaching tools to help fathers and sons build stronger relationships.

Cultural practitioner Earl Kawa‘a also tapped the Hawaiian culture to assist families involved with the child welfare system.

Cultural practitioner Greg Dela Cruz of Maui uses Hawaiian values such as kuleana (responsibility) and malama (caring for, protecting) to teach his Kamalama parenting classes.

The genesis for Lee’s Waianae program came after Umemoto, the UH professor, and three co-authors published a 2012 report showing a substantial overrepresentation of Hawaiians in the juvenile justice system.

The study showed Hawaiians were arrested for juvenile violations or status offenses at a greater rate than any other ethnic group and were nearly twice as likely to be arrested as whites.

Striving to reverse the seemingly endless cycle of arrests, Lee and others involved with the system held dozens of meetings in Hawaiian communities around the state, asking what was needed to get at the root of the overrepresentation problem.

They got their answer: People wanted a program grounded in culture, aina, ohana and spirituality, which are all part of Wahi Kana‘aho, according to Lee, who ran a similar program on Molokai.

Alternative remedy

Lee’s program, which must be staffed around the clock while the youths are at the Waianae facility, received $441,000 from DHS’ Office of Youth Services to fund 17 months of operations. Each 21-day session has a minimum of four youths and can accept up to 10.

The DHS grant was part of an initiative to address racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs also contributed $200,000.

Wahi Kana‘aho is part of what is called Ho‘opono Mamo, a new civil citation system that provides youths previously arrested for status offenses (truancy, running away, etc.) or first-time misdemeanors an alternative to the juvenile justice system.

During their three-week stay the Wahi Kana‘aho clients are immersed in things Hawaiian.

Lee uses the process of preparing and harvesting the land as a metaphor, telling the teenagers they need to bring to their lives the same discipline required to successfully cultivate the crops.

So far, roughly 30 youths have gone through Wahi Kana‘aho since it launched in May. All came through the juvenile justice system, and at least half also spent time in foster care, Lee said.

Pouring out emotions

The centerpiece of Wahi Kana‘aho is the hooponopono session, where participants are told that “everything said at the table stays at the table.” Some youths have more than one.

In preparing for hooponopono, Lee tells his wards they need to first heal themselves before they can mend relationships with others. Forgiveness is vital to the process. The teenagers are encouraged to be honest and to speak from the heart, even if the conversations venture into painful territory.

The exchanges typically end in emotional embraces, with few dry eyes around the table. No one walks away unmoved.

Once the teens leave the program, they become healers themselves, a skill that can help them maintain a positive path, according to Lee.

He acknowledged that his program might not connect with some youths. One girl ran away days before her graduation.

But the preliminary results of an ongoing evaluation by Katherine Tibbetts, director of evaluation at Queen Lili‘uokalani Trust, have been promising.

During interviews with 14 participants from the first four Wahi Kana‘aho sessions, Tibbetts asked the teenagers to name the greatest strengths of the program. Their responses included learning about themselves and rebuilding broken bonds with family.

One teen summed it up this way: “This program is changing kids’ futures!”

Read the full article on the Star-Advertiser site.

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