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Agency charged with protecting at-risk keiki grappling with funding issues, staff shortages

Published: Nov. 16, 2021 at 6:01 PM HST|Updated: Nov. 17, 2021 at 8:52 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - As HPD continues to investigate the Isabella “Ariel” Kalua murder case, lawmakers are considering the challenges facing Child Welfare Services ― and what to do about them.

Isabella was adopted by her foster parents, who are now charged with her murder.

While the details of Isabella’s adoption haven’t been released because of the ongoing investigation, lawmakers and others have noted CWS has weathered budget cuts that could have impacted service.

“CWS was mandated to reduce their budget by 10% when the pandemic started,” a spokesperson said, in a statement to Hawaii News Now.

In addition, the statement said, “The request to access money to fund prevention services was not passed this past legislative session.”

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Lawmakers say they will work in the upcoming session, which starts in January, to address the agency’s funding challenges.

State Rep. Ryan Yamane, chair of the Health, Human Services and Homelessness Committee, said he already has met with leadership from CWS and the Hawaii Department of Human Services.

“Do we need to increase the number of Child Welfare Services workers?” said Yamane.

Staffing is another big concern.

There are currently 1,081 active foster child cases. Meanwhile, there are 170 social workers statewide, but there are 45 vacancies.

While the average number of cases per worker is on par with standards ― about seven ― the intake calls can stretch the department.

About 250 of those come in every month.

Those are potential outcries of abuse or neglect that need to be investigated.

Yamane said other questions lawmakers have regarding the CWS budget include:

“How fast will it take to fill those positions, the vacancies? Do we need more positions? Where should those positions be and where are those resources going to come from?”

He said the Kalua case highlights the need for deeper conversations about the current system and requirements.

Kalua was adopted on Jan. 26 by the couple now accused of her murder: Isaac and Lehua Kalua.

Once an adoption is final, privacy rules mean state social workers no longer periodically check on the former foster child. That’s something Yamane said is also worth discussing ― the balance of privacy versus the need to ensure the child remains safe.

Case workers were still required to check on Kalua’s siblings, who also lived in the Waimanalo home and were still being fostered.

Face-to-face visits were conducted with the siblings at various times but, sources said, COVID-19 restrictions forced some meetings to be via FaceTime or tele-conference.

That meant checking in on Isabella while there was more difficult.

Isaac Kalua also made up a COVID infection, according to court records, in mid-August.

The documents said the girl’s older sister told investigators that he faked the illness so he could stay home from work and help get rid of evidence.

That infection claim would have also kept CWS workers from visiting the home again.

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