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John Hill: Hawaii Should Come Clean About Its Actions In A Notorious Child Abuse Case

John Hill: Hawaii Should Come Clean About Its Actions In A Notorious Child Abuse Case
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John Hill: Hawaii Should Come Clean About Its Actions In A Notorious Child Abuse Case  Honolulu Civil Beat

Almost nothing is known about the actions of the public officials who handed over Ariel Sellers to the Waimanalo couple accused of killing her.

Editor’s note: Civil Beat Investigations Editor John Hill is launching a new investigative column that examines issues of transparency and government accountability at all levels and in all areas of Hawaii.

Will anyone ever have to answer for Ariel Sellers’ death?

I’m not talking about her adoptive parents, Isaac and Lehua Kalua. They are accused of keeping the 6-year-old girl they renamed Isabella in a dog cage with her mouth duct-taped so she would not roam the house at night seeking the food they failed to provide. A trial early next year will decide the Waimanalo couple’s fate.

No, I am talking instead about the public servants and government contractors who took part in handing her over to the Kaluas.

To be clear, I am not equating the actions of these public officials with the horrible crimes that led to arguably the most notorious child abuse case in recent Hawaii history. But they are professionals with great responsibilities – and when something goes very wrong, as it did here, they should be held accountable.

It’s easy – but not always fair – to second-guess child welfare officials. Social workers cannot be expected to always know which of the many parents and foster caregivers they oversee are going to do something horrible. Sometimes no one outside the family has any reason to suspect bad things are happening behind closed doors.

This was not such a case. The Kaluas had criminal records that would have been enough for the Department of Human Services to reject them as foster parents, much less adoptive parents. They were in financial straits that also could have disqualified them.

And a lawsuit now alleges that there were several reports to the state and others that the Kaluas were abusing Ariel for more than a year before she disappeared. They are, of course, just allegations, but the lawsuit gives very specific details, including dates, places and people. And Ariel’s biological mother Melanie Joseph told Civil Beat she also warned state social workers about her fears that Ariel was being abused.

The poor girl is dead after unimaginable suffering. But what do we know about the actions of the various state social workers, contractors and court officials?

Almost nothing.

Who Was The Judge?

What about the Family Court judge who approved the adoption? Under Hawaii law adoptive parents must be “fit and proper persons and financially able to give the individual a proper home and education.” A judge must make sure this standard is met.

In addition to his criminal record of felony assault and terroristic threatening, Isaac Kalua filed for bankruptcy in July 2020, several months before Ariel’s adoption. He listed $130,893 in debt beyond what he owed on his house, mostly from credit cards and lines of credit.

I asked the state Judiciary the name of this judge. The answer – everything about adoption proceedings is private, even the name of the judge.

“Once an adoption is granted, all records are placed under seal,” a spokesman for the Judiciary wrote in an email. “In light of these statutory mandates, the Judiciary is prohibited from disclosing the names of judges who grant adoption petitions because this would indirectly be disclosing confidential information.”

But how does this apply to the Ariel Sellers case? It’s been reported publicly scores of times that she had been adopted by the Kaluas. It is no longer confidential.

Judges don’t have lifetime tenure. They petition the Hawaii Judicial Selection Commission to approve them for new six-year terms. The commission should think long and hard about granting another term to the judge who approved Ariel’s adoption, or at least ask some tough questions. The public needs to know the identity of that judge so people have a chance to comment.

What about the social workers and their supervisors at DHS, and the contractors who advise them about whether a placement is safe, including Catholic Charities, which is named in the lawsuit?

I asked DHS whether it or any other entity had conducted a review of what went wrong in Ariel’s case and, if so, if I could see it. I also asked for an interview with Cathy Betts, DHS director since 2020 and before that deputy director.

No response on the Betts interview. As for the review: “DHS has done an internal review of the confidential records of the case. The records are not able to be disclosed because they are prohibited from disclosure by law.”

John Hill: Hawaii Should Come Clean About Its Actions In A Notorious Child Abuse Case

A trial for Isaac and Lehua Kalua, accused of second-degree murder in the death of their adoptive daughter, is scheduled for early next year. (Honolulu Police Department photos)

It’s true that federal law requires state child welfare agencies to keep records confidential, including abuse reports, to protect the rights of children and their parents and guardians.

But there are exceptions. One federal provision calls for the states to allow public disclosure of “the findings or information about the case of child abuse or neglect which has resulted in a child fatality or near fatality.”

Earlier this year, I asked DHS for “findings and information” in child abuse deaths and near deaths for the past several years. The department did provide some very barebones information about several cases – but not Ariel’s.

The reason? Though the girl had been missing for more than a year, she had not been officially declared dead.

A judge made that declaration in July, so I once again asked DHS for its “findings and information.” The department said it was waiting for the court to send a written order or death certificate.

This month, I asked again.

SDGs, Targets, and Indicators

SDGs Addressed:

  1. SDG 1: No Poverty
  2. SDG 2: Zero Hunger
  3. SDG 3: Good Health and Well-being
  4. SDG 4: Quality Education
  5. SDG 5: Gender Equality
  6. SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities
  7. SDG 16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions

Targets Identified:

  • Target 1.2: By 2030, reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women, and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions.
  • Target 2.1: By 2030, end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food all year round.
  • Target 3.2: By 2030, end preventable deaths of newborns and children under 5 years of age, with all countries aiming to reduce neonatal mortality to at least as low as 12 per 1,000 live births and under-5 mortality to at least as low as 25 per 1,000 live births.
  • Target 4.1: By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable, and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.
  • Target 5.2: Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.
  • Target 10.2: By 2030, empower and promote the social, economic, and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion, or economic or other status.
  • Target 16.6: Develop effective, accountable, and transparent institutions at all levels.

Indicators:

  • Indicator 1.2.1: Proportion of population living below the national poverty line, by sex and age group.
  • Indicator 2.1.1: Prevalence of undernourishment.
  • Indicator 3.2.2: Neonatal mortality rate.
  • Indicator 3.2.3: Under-5 mortality rate.
  • Indicator 4.1.1: Proportion of children and young people (a) in grades 2/3; (b) at the end of primary; and (c) at the end of lower secondary achieving at least a minimum proficiency level in (i) reading and (ii) mathematics, by sex.
  • Indicator 5.2.1: Proportion of ever-partnered women and girls aged 15 years and older subjected to physical, sexual, or psychological violence by a current or former intimate partner in the previous 12 months, by form of violence and by age group.
  • Indicator 10.2.1: Proportion of people living below 50 percent of median income, by age, sex, and persons with disabilities.
  • Indicator 16.6.1: Primary government expenditures as a proportion of original approved budget, by sector (or by budget codes or similar).

Table: SDGs, Targets, and Indicators

SDGs Targets Indicators
SDG 1: No Poverty Target 1.2: By 2030, reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women, and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions. Indicator 1.2.1: Proportion of population living below the national poverty line, by sex and age group.
SDG 2: Zero Hunger Target 2.1: By 2030, end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food all year round. Indicator 2.1.1: Prevalence of undernourishment.
SDG 3: Good Health and Well-being Target 3.2: By 2030, end preventable deaths of newborns and children under 5 years of age, with all countries aiming to reduce neonatal mortality to at least as low as 12 per 1,000 live births and under-5 mortality to at least as low as 25 per 1,000 live births. Indicator 3.2.2: Neonatal mortality rate.
Indicator 3.2.3: Under-5 mortality rate.
SDG 4: Quality Education Target 4.1: By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable, and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes. Indicator 4.1.1: Proportion of children and young people (a) in grades 2/3; (b) at the end of primary; and (c) at the end of lower secondary achieving at least a minimum proficiency level in (i) reading and (ii) mathematics, by sex.
SDG 5: Gender Equality Target 5.2: Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation. Indicator 5.2.1: Proportion of ever-partnered women and girls aged 15 years and older subjected to physical, sexual, or psychological violence by a current or former intimate partner in the previous 12 months, by form of violence and by age group.
SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities Target 10.2: By 2030, empower and promote the social, economic,

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Source: civilbeat.org

 

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