A Waipio woman has filed a lawsuit against the state, saying his death could have been prevented if the boy hadn't been returned to his parents.
Zion McKeown was just four years old when he died in 2012. The Maui Medical Examiner's office said the youngster died after he was stomped on the abdomen.
His father, Kyle McKeown and his girlfriend, Grace Lee Nakamoto, are charged with his murder. But Zion's grandmother, Maryann Rooney, blames the state.
The Child Welfare Services Branch had taken the boy from his mother – Rooney's daughter – in 2008 after reports of abuse, but eventually returned him to his parents.
"They gave this child back to a mother who was not stable, to a mother who, just because she took classes, doesn't make her mother," said Rooney.
Rooney said her daughter then left Zion with his father on Maui. "She gave him away. If she was able to raise a child, she wouldn't have just given him away to someone else. I mean he was the father, but look at what he did to him."
Rooney's lawsuit cites a state policy that puts a priority on placing a child with relatives if there are no safety issues. But Rooney's attorney said there were obvious signs of danger in this case.
"What were they thinking? What was going on? Was anybody paying attention? Certainly after he was returned, the answer to that is, they weren't," said attorney Carl Varady.
The policy was put in place when Lillian Koller was Human Services Director under Gov. Linda Lingle. Koller is now under fire as head of the South Carolina Department of Social Services. The agency is accused of mishandling child welfare cases, including one in which a child died.
A spokeswoman for the Hawaii Department of Human Services declined comment, saying the lawsuit was now being handled by the Attorney General's office.
Rooney said Hawaii should realize that an abused child doesn't always belong with family.
"Sometimes, sometimes that's not the best place for them. Not when the parents are not capable of taking care of them."