Hawaii Governor Signs Slate of Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Laws

Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D) signed several new child welfare and juvenile justice laws this summer. Photo courtesy of the Hawaii Office of the Governor

This summer has seen a lot of action around youth-centric legislation in Hawaii. In July, Gov. David Ige (D) signed a number of new laws governing the state’s child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

The slate of legislation comes after a recent federal review that determined Hawaii was failing to meet the federal standards for children in foster care.

Here are some highlights:

Juvenile Justice Reform

A new law signed by Ige last month is geared toward preventing young people from entering the justice system. It authorizes the creation of a youth and family wellness center on the campus at the site of the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility, which has been the subject of previous legal actions related to dangerous overcrowding and abuse of LGBTQ youth in its custody.

The goal of the Kawailoa Youth and Family Wellness Center is to reduce youth incarceration by addressing the underlying needs of young people who are exhibiting problematic behaviors. It will provide delinquency prevention services, including mental health and substance abuse treatment, individual and family counseling, education and employment services, and residential group homes for youth at-risk of criminal involvement.

“It reforms a punitive system to a rehabilitative one,” said Kat Brady, coordinator at Community Alliance on Prisons, a coalition focused on alternatives to incarceration.

The center will also provide crisis shelters and services to youth struggling with housing security or who have been victims of human or sex trafficking. The population at the youth wellness center will be segregated from youth detained at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility, a population that has decreased by about 75 percent over the last decade and now numbers about 23, according to Hawaii News Now.

Cutting Caseloads

With one large area of the Big Island facing child abuse rates far out of proportion with other parts of the state, H.B. 2277  authorizes a five-year pilot project that will fund the hiring of four additional full-time child protective services social workers.

Social workers in the east Hawaii area regularly carry caseloads of 40 to 50 kids at any given time — far higher than the 15-child maximum caseload recommended by the Child Welfare League of America. According to the legislation, the east Hawaii section of the child services department has been sanctioned by the family court for missing court deadlines.

“These higher caseloads increase the potential for harm to children who are already experiencing or are at risk for neglect or abuse and contribute to a crisis situation in east Hawaii,” the bill reads.

The east Hawaii service area addressed by the bill is vast in size, approximately the equivalent of the rest of the Hawaiian islands combined. During the Great Recession, they lost a significant portion of their workforce, which has ultimately led to the unmanageable workloads.

The pilot project will be evaluated annually to determine if increased staffing results in improved outcomes for children and families, higher employee satisfaction, or reduction in lawsuits filed against the department.

The law appropriates $321,598 from the state’s general fund to launch the pilot.

Addressing Abuse by Childcare Providers

Also signed by Ige last month is “Peyton’s law,” which authorizes the state to inform parents of any confirmed child abuse or neglect by a childcare provider. It comes three years after 4-year-old Peyton Valiente suffered a brain injury from being violently shaken while in the care of a babysitter.

HB 1650 also puts into place a working group tasked with reviewing the rules and procedures around childcare licensing and investigating abuse and neglect, with the specific goal of improving safety in childcare settings. The group, which includes law enforcement, child welfare officials and advocates, will provide the state legislature a report of findings, recommendations and proposed legislation ahead of the 2019-20 legislative session.

Peyton Valiente became unresponsive while at his babysitter’s house in January 2015. Doctors found bleeding on the then 17-month-old’s brain and eyes, along with finger-shaped bruises on his body. They concluded the injuries had been caused by forceful shaking and called in child protective services.

But while child welfare investigators determined that the injury had most likely occurred at the babysitter’s home, no charges were ever filed. The babysitter is married to a Honolulu police officer.

A Bill of Rights for Foster Youth

Following the lead of California and a number of other states, Hawaii instituted a bill of rights for youth in foster care.

The rights enumerated in the document include the right to a home free of abuse; adequate food, clothing and shelter; freedom of religion; and access to health care.

The bill also guarantees the right for foster youth to have regular visits or phone calls with their biological families and siblings during their separation unless the court deems contact with family members unsafe for the youth. If visits are denied, though, the youth has the right to disagree to the denial, prompting an immediate review into the situation.

The law also promises that at age 12, all foster youth will have in place a transition plan and receive age-appropriate life skills to help them grow successfully into young adults. Youth 14 years and older are guaranteed the right to be involved in developing this plan.

Older foster youth will also be entitled to assistance in managing their finances and obtaining legal documents, such as driver’s licenses, birth certificates and immigration paperwork.

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