Child welfare settlements costing the state more than $5M - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

Child welfare settlements costing the state more than $5M

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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -

Since the death of Peter Boy Kema nearly 20 years ago, the state said it has improved the safety net for abused and neglected children.

But Big Island Deputy Prosecutor Rick Damerville, who handled the Peter Boy Kema case, said there are still holes in the system.

"These cases happen too often. I understand the idea of reuniting families but sometimes you can drag it out too long and you can create a situation that can be bad, very bad," said Damerville.

During the past five years, the state has agreed to pay more than $5 million dollars to settle four separate cases where it was accused of inadequately protecting children.

This year, the state agreed to pay $875,000 over the death of four-year-old Zion McKeown on Maui in 2012.

Child Protective Services took him in 2008, then returned him to his mother two years later. She then sent him to his father, who now faces murder charges.

Then, there's the 2005 case of ten-year-old Alexis, in what was called a "house of horrors" on the Big Island. 

She suffered permanent damage from malnutrition, burns to her face and body, and maggots living in her festering wounds.

A lawsuit alleged that school officials missed signs of abuse by a caregiver. The case was settled for nearly $6 million with the state paying nearly $3.5 million of that.

"We're going to continue to pay out that kind of money. But more importantly kids are going to continue to be harmed, maimed and killed," said attorney Eric Seitz.

According to the state, the average social worker in the Child Welfare Services branch handles more than 20 cases at a time, a high case load which many believe contributes to the child endangering.

"We have adopted I guess the military triage idea for treatment where you have a bunch of people wounded on the battle field and the medical professionals make a decision whether or not this person is lost and therefore don't waste your time," said Damerville.

"It may work on a battle field but it doesn't work with children." he added. 

Damerville, who also handled the case of "Alexis," was a victim himself of an abusive father -- a veteran who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder.

"These children cases are personal. Not just with me but with everybody in law enforcement who deals with them," he said.

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