Do you want to know how many Hawaii children are homicide victims — that is, killed by their parents, a relative or a friend of one of those?
The National Center for Health Statistics publishes every known cause of child death that’s reported by Hawaii’s child protective agency and Health Department. So you look under child homicide deaths and here’s what you get:
Suppressed data due to confidentiality constraints.
That’s right. We are not told about the child killings unless we track arrest stories in the newspaper, on TV or the internet. Was a child returned to abusive parents and then killed? Not our business.
More troubling: Hawaii’s Child Protective Services generally tries to reunite children from abusive or even lethal families with their parents. You won’t ever hear about those cases because they hide in Family Court in what are called “ghost hearings.” They exist but you and I can’t see them.
It deeply troubles me. It doesn’t deeply trouble our lawmakers because they let “ghost hearings” continue. No publicity. No public input or push back. The mom or the dad promises not to abuse any more kids and they get theirs back. That’s the pending Beyer case in Family Court now. Dad charged. Mom knew but said nothing. Now wants a child back in her custody.
But to tell you the horrible truth, much child abuse goes unreported here. Families and relatives stick together. Doctors and therapists have been shown case-after-case to have overlooked bruises and other signs of parental abuse.
State law mandates such reporting:
Notwithstanding any other state law concerning confidentiality to the contrary persons who, in their professional or official capacity, have reason to believe that child abuse or neglect has occurred or that there exists a substantial risk that child abuse or neglect may occur in the reasonably foreseeable future, shall immediately report the matter orally to the Department of Human Services or to the police department.
And so, legal guardian Steve Lane comments this whole child-abuse/killing matter:
“In recent years, Peter Kema and Shaelynn Lehano- Stone were horrific victims of the abusive families from which they had been initially removed and then returned in secret. There are others I am sure. In part I suspect this is a function of the perception of the social worker professional: “I can fix it. I can make this family functional once again” Again sadly, the dead and grievously injured children who we see on the 6 o’clock news too often are graphic testament to this failed vision.
“Most recently I have been appointed to represent the interests of a horrifically abused and battered infant. A year before she was nearly beaten to death, someone in her 2 parent household beat her infant brother to death. To date, no one has been convicted of that murder. “Since that time, the father was convicted at a court martial of assaulting his daughter and given a short prison term of 3 years. The mother was acquitted for murdering her son and inexplicably all charges originally brought against her for trying to murder her daughter were dismissed. The child has been in foster care on the mainland ever since. Child Protective Services in this instance did exactly the right thing — it took immediate custody of the child at the hospital and placed the child in foster care where by all accounts she is doing well.
“But what terrifies me for this child is that the mother has hired a lawyer, is back in family court, and is seeking custody of this child in a “ghost permanency hearing” where I am not permitted to appear and where all of the proceedings are confidential and invisible to public scrutiny.
“There has got to be a better way to protect our children while still respecting the need for their privacy as minors. Otherwise, this is how children will continue to die in our community over and over again.”
My own awakening to this “ghost hearing” system came in 2006 when the story surfaced of an abused child returned to an abusive household and was abused again.
The state agreed to pay $2 million to settle the resultant lawsuit filed on behalf of the boy, who was so badly beaten by his mother in 1997 that he was left brain-damaged, blind and in a vegetative state.
The state also was sued in connection with the beating of 4-year-old Reubyne Buentipo Jr. because the boy had been in foster care, but state case workers returned the child to his mother despite earlier injuries to the boy that left him hospitalized in June 1995 and April 1996.
Then in 2016, that Lehano-Stone case that guardian Lane mentioned.
9-year-old Shaelynn, a Hilo girl, died of starvation that year. Her death weight was listed as 45 pounds. She had been repeatedly removed from her home by the State DHS Child Welfare Branch only to be returned despite relatives’ concerns for her safety.
From the time of her birth in September of 2006, the records show, she was taken from her parents — Kevin Lehano and Tiffany Stone — and placed in foster care. But then given back when those parents promised good care.
The latest statistics I can unearth show that 2% of all child deaths in Hawaii are homicides by parents, relatives or caregivers.
Now you might say that figure over a 5-year period is pretty small. Just as you might say 435 Covid deaths in a state population of 1.4 million is pretty small. But the untimely death of every one of our people is a severe loss to some of our people.
We are battling Covid with every good tool available to us.
Can we say the same about child protection against abuse and death?
I think the answer is no. We’ve given too many abusive parents a pass.