There are two remarkable trends occurring in Hawai‘i’s child welfare system that are welcome news for at-risk families and our community in general. Namely, the number of children in foster care has dropped dramatically over the past five years, while the safety of our children has improved nearly three-fold.
On any given day in 2003, about 3,000 children were in foster care statewide. Today, only 1,700 children are in state care — the lowest number since 1993.
Also in 2003, Hawai‘i’s child re-abuse rate stood at 6 percent. That number fell to just 2.2 percent in 2007, meaning that our state now has one of the lowest re-abuse rates in the country and that we are doing far better than the accepted national standard of 6.1 percent. In other words, our children are significantly safer than they were five years ago.
What created these positive trends? There are two main factors.
First, the state Department of Human Services no longer has a one-size-fits-all protocol when investigating reports of child abuse or neglect. Under that old approach, DHS removed children from their biological parents at up to four times the national rate, with no improvement in safety outcomes.
Today, under the Lingle-Aiona administration’s leadership, DHS uses an innovative Differential Response System that carefully weighs the risk factors in a family’s home. DHS developed this Web-based system in conjunction with the National Resource Center for Child Protective Services in New Mexico, and with the help of information technology faculty and students at Maui Community College.
This system uses intake, safety and comprehensive assessments to determine the least intrusive and most effective intervention for each report of child abuse or neglect.
If DHS determines that a home is not safe for children and cannot be made safe, police are alerted to immediately remove the keiki and place them in protective care. However, if the risk to children is not high, DHS works with families to voluntarily resolve safety issues in their homes by providing outreach, individual and family counseling, parenting classes and other social services.
This more appropriate approach is in keeping with nationally accepted best practices.
The second main factor in lowering foster care numbers and increasing child safety involves a significant investment of federal dollars by DHS to strengthen at-risk families and promote positive youth development.
Prior to the start of Director Lillian Koller’s tenure in 2003, DHS had not spent any money from its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Federal funding on poverty prevention programs. DHS primarily used this annual block grant of nearly $99 million for welfare checks, with the remaining federal dollars allowed to sit idle in a reserve fund that eventually mushroomed to one of the largest in the nation.
DHS now uses TANF money to support a wide range of community agencies that follow proven strategies for helping parents find and retain employment. These agencies also help young people succeed in school and prepare for college and careers, while helping them avoid substance abuse, crime and out-of-wedlock pregnancies — all of which lead directly to poverty and child abuse.
Unfortunately, the state Legislature froze $28.2 million of Hawai‘i’s TANF dollars for the current fiscal year by forcing this federal money into reserve. Despite severe spending restrictions, however, DHS found a way to support social service programs for at least another year by making across-the-board funding cuts of 12 percent.
Moving forward, DHS and its community partners will work closely with elected officials during the 2009 Legislative Session in hopes of lifting this unnecessary and counterproductive TANF spending freeze at the earliest possible moment.
The sharp drop in foster care numbers and the increase in child safety have also produced benefits for Hawai‘i’s social workers and their clients.
Prior to this new direction at DHS, social workers were scrambling to keep up with heavy caseloads. Now that caseloads are much lighter, our workers have time to better assess the needs of each family and conduct many more in-home visits.
The good news about Hawai‘i’s foster care system comes as we prepare for our second Child and Family Services Review, which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will conduct in 2009. This nationwide review will help Hawai‘i and all the other states determine where they are succeeding with their child welfare services, while pinpointing areas that need improvement.
DHS and its community partners welcome this federal scrutiny because it reinforces our commitment to continuous quality improvement. And this commitment to meeting and exceeding federal standards will lead to even stronger families and safer keiki in the Aloha State.
• Amy Tsark is the DHS Social Services Division acting administrator and the leader of the Child Welfare Services Branch.