HONOLULU (KHON2) - Hundreds of alleged child abuse or neglect cases are not being investigated in the state, because there aren't enough social workers to handle the caseloads.
It's a problem with potentially severe consequences, and lawmakers are now stepping in.
A decade ago, hundreds of state positions were cut due to the recession. Several social workers in the state's Child Welfare Services branch lost their jobs.
Ten years later, the jobs were never filled.
Now, state social workers are swamped with double or triple the amount of caseloads a typical social worker would handle.
The lack of resources has Joseph O'Connell concerned. The Big Island resident says he grew up in the foster care system.
"We grew up in a house with a lot of drugs, a lot of domestic violence," he explained. "I'm one of five children, four different dads. At the age of 8, my mom was in a long-term prison sentence. My dad committed suicide, so we went into foster care."
O'Connell credits his social worker, Lois Smith, for taking him off what he called a bad path.
"I dropped out of school, wasn't doing well. Because of the work the state did through great social work, I was able to get back on track and get my GED. Then I ended up graduating UH Hilo with a bachelor's in economics. Lois saved me and my siblings' life, and my future," he said.
Hawaii's social workers are swamped with cases of child abuse or neglect. There are 326 cases currently on backlog.
"Because they're short staffed, they're taking double and triple the caseloads. They can't continue to go on," said state Rep. John Mizuno, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee.
Mizuno says social worker positions in the Child Welfare Services branch need to be filled immediately.
"We have kids at risk of abuse. God forbid, what if a fatality happens?" O'Connell said. "The best way of preventing future abuse of children is to take care of the children we have now and make sure they get on the right track, spend the money on salaries, not settlements."
According to Mizuno, the state legislature would need to provide at least $3 million to fill all 52 vacant social worker positions.
"At this point, what is a life? A child's life is priceless, so the state needs to step up and fill those positions. We need to come up with the money and we need to get these case workers hired right away," said Mizuno.
In an email response, Department of Human Services public information officer Keopu Reelitz wrote:
"We have 180 social worker / human services positions. These positions are professional staff who take on a number of roles which include assessment, permanency, licensing, intake and voluntary case management. Some of these staff interact directly with clients and others provides support for our programs and service providers. Not all of them are front-line CWS workers.
"As of a vacancy report at the close of 2017, there are 46 vacancies.
"We are currently working statewide within our department and in collaboration with the Department of Human Resources Development (DHRD) to address vacancies in CWS. We appreciate that we’ve also been able to work with the current legislature to address recruitment issues. Social work in general is a difficult career, and working in Child Welfare Services can be even more challenging due to the kinds of cases our team takes on. We know that addressing recruitment (filling vacancies) as well as improving retention are both integral to maintaining a full team.
"We do want to mention that much of our staff have been with Child Welfare Services for more than 10 years, showing their dedication to improving the well-being of vulnerable children, adults and the families we serve.
"In calendar year 2017, a total of 23 of those social worker / human services positions separated from the department. Of that total, 3 were vested retirements (meaning vested in the state retirement system)."