Foster care in Hawaii gets a closer look after teen suicide

Noy Worachit
Noy Worachit
John Walters
John Walters

By Teri Okita – bio | email

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - State lawmakers are investigating whether Hawaii's foster care system is in need of a major overhaul. Their inquiry comes on the heels of a teenager who recently 'aged out' of the system - then committed suicide.

A memorial for Erwin Celes still sits inside Little Caesar's Pizza in Wahiawa - where the 19 year old had worked for the past year. In September, the teenager hanged himself - unable to cope with a rocky past that included a broken family, bouncing from foster home to foster home since the age of six, anger problems, and drug use. It all came to a head this summer when an ex-girlfriend killed herself.

John Walters, program development administrator at Hawaii's Child Protective Services says, "I really feel for Erwin because, somewhere at the end, there was nowhere he could reach to for help. I wish we could have been there for him."

Celes aged out of foster care in March. His death left many asking if enough is being done to help 18 year olds shift to life on their own. The Department of Human Services rarely releases files on youth but recently did so for Celes. DHS says it was to ensure transparency and accountability - so the public can see what the state did and did not do in this specific case.

Lawmakers are trying to figure out how to save teens, like Celes, who are falling through the cracks. Some improvements being bandied about include mandatory re-certification for foster parents. Hawaii is one of only two states that doesn't require it. Foster parents would get a raise in benefits if they commit to re-certification every one to two years.

Legislators are also considering automatic Medicaid eligibility for those who age out - for things like mental health counseling and drug treatment, if needed. Scholarships and more educational and vocational training would be offered. And raising monthly payments to foster families is also under consideration. Foster parents currently receive 529 dollars per child each month. That amount hasn't changed since 1986.

In these tough economic times, in order to hike those monthly payments to foster families, state Representative John Mizuno says taxes shouldn't be raised. DHS would have to allocate its current budget more efficiently and apply for more federal funds.

"We can't support them forever, and so, we're looking for a proper way to transition them to adulthood," says Mizuno, who chairs the Human Services committee.

17 year old Noy Worachit is four months away from aging out and is worried about what will happen next. She has a one year old daughter, attends Kapiolani Community College, and will have to pay rent soon.

"Normal kids, they have their parents. They can stay with their parents until they finish college and even until after. But for us, when you turn 18, that's the cut-off."

Right now, Hawaii has about 1350 children in foster care. 50 of them will age out of the system within the year.

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