Blindspots in network of child protections probed in wake of Isabella Kalua murder

Always Investigating

HONOLULU (KHON2) — Isaac and Lehua Kalua are charged with murdering their adopted daughter, and are also charged with child endangerment and abuse spanning years, from the time they took Isabella and her siblings in as foster children before adopting several of them.

Always Investigating examines what safeguards should have protected these children, and what blindspots are in a multiagency system that serves thousands of children in Hawaii.

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As shocking as the murder charges are against the Kaluas, so are the ongoing child abuse allegations revealed in their indictment and other allegations that have surfaced since their arrest, including:

* Physical and mental child endangerment from the time they took in Isabella and a sibling in February 2019 through to Isabella’s presumed death this August and the siblings’ removal from the home in September;

* Persistent failure to support essentials like food, shelter, clothing even education; and

* Spans of abuse alleged against Lehua this past June, July and August.

The extent of involvement in each case for Child Welfare Services, police, courts, schools, and other third-party guardians and mandatory reporters is largely sealed, but we do know several incidents rose to the level of police, case-worker and even what’s called “multidisciplinary team” review.

“That (the team review) only happens when CWS has made an internal determination there’s likely abuse,” explained Stephen Lane, a child advocate who also served as a special master on the Peter Boy Kema case. “That’s the only reason you call it in place of multidisciplinary return meeting, to review allegations of an injury to a child.”

A CWS spokesperson explained the multidisciplinary team can include psychologists, social workers, nurses, even pediatricians. If they “determine no child abuse and neglect has occurred and CWS is in full agreement, then CWS will take no further action. But CWS can continue to monitor the case if they still have concerns. MDTs can be initiated with or without court order,” the agency said.

It’s not clear if or when the family court was alerted to red flags including whether something called the “family court tort protocol” was triggered, and if the court properly followed through if so. That’s a form mandatory reporting in-writing to the judge by CWS or anyone else with substantive knowledge of abuse.

“Just going the police isn’t enough. That’s not what the protocol requires,” Lane said. “That’s why the judge wants to know, then the judge has the benefit of the CWS report, and the police report, and all of the other documents, the medical records. That’s the only way that the court can get, I think, a full and accurate picture of what occurred. This child should never have died.”

CWS explained: “CWS refers suspected abuse to police as deemed appropriate, regardless of whether there is Family Court involvement. The Family Court Tort Protocol is applied to child welfare cases that Family Court in the First Circuit already has jurisdiction over and where a potential claim for a tort may exist. If that protocol is applicable and a child may have suffered an injury that could be considered an actionable tort under Federal and/or State law, the Court is informed in writing of such by CWS.”

Both the state case worker and guardian would have had eyes on any fostered kids in that home as often as monthly from the time they came in as fosters in 2019 through to their adoptions in early 2021. A fourth child was still a foster as of the children’s removal from the home following Isabella’s disappearance.

“Typically, if a child is under foster custody to DHS, the case worker must have at least one face-to-face visit per month,” CWS explained. “Additionally, the child’s guardian ad litem is required to have face-to-face contact at least once every three months.”

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CWS is not disclosing any details of Kalua child-welfare visits but said in general: “The visits really depend on how engaged the child is willing to be. At minimum, the worker will observe the child’s physical appearance and ask questions to assess the child’s overall well-being.  Face-to-face visits did occur throughout the pandemic but circumstances including a positive COVID case could have resulted in tele-visit options instead.

The initial charges in the Kalua case detail how Isaac allegedly faked a COVID scare around the time Isabella may have been murdered.

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