Improving Hawaii’s response to missing child cases takes multi-pronged approach

Always Investigating

HONOLULU (KHON2) — The disappearance of Isabella Kalua — also known as Ariel Sellers — in Waimanalo is the latest unsolved missing-child case on the islands. Other cases have ended in tragedy, and others get little to no attention. That is something many people in Hawaii want to see changed.

When Isabella went to bed Sunday, Sept. 12, in her Waimanalo home it was the last time her adoptive family said she was seen. Isabella was then reported missing to police Monday, Sept. 13. It wasn’t until 8:59 a.m. Monday that a press release went out to Honolulu media from Crimestoppers and not a Maile Amber alert due to constraints on using that mass blast system.

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“I think what we’ve seen here is that it’s rarely used,” said Michael Kitchens, moderator of the Stolen Stuff Hawaii group and an advocate for crime victims and the criminal justice system.

“We’ve had so many major profile cases, and it hasn’t been used. In this situation, I think that the current alert needs to be modified. When it comes to a child’s life, I think we need to use every single tool at once.”

Michael Kitchens, moderator of the Stolen Stuff Hawaii group and an advocate for crime victims and the criminal justice system

“It’s very important to also note that, in the absence of an Amber alert, there still is going to be a very robust law enforcement response to a missing child,” explained Amanda Leonard, statewide coordinator of the Missing Child Center Hawaii — a division within the Attorney General’s office that helps facilitate multi-agency response to missing-child cases “It doesn’t mean that because there’s not an activation that there isn’t an aggressive response.”

Efforts on the ground in the Waimanalo area came up with a handful of clues but no Isabella. The search was suspended on Monday, Sept. 20.

There has been a change of command this past weekend at HPD’s Criminal Investigation Division as Maj. Benjamin Moszkowicz took over while Maj. Stephen Gerona — the target of a harassment lawsuit and complaints — was re-assigned to the Legislative Liaison Office.

One lawsuit allegation against Gerona was that he discouraged a Maile Amber alert and early investigation when toddler Kytana Ancog was not returned by her father. Kytana was murdered, and the father was charged with the crime.

Always Investigating asked HPD what impact the overhaul at CID is having on the Isabella investigation.

HPD told KHON2: “The investigators are continuing to work on the case. The change in commanders does not impact the investigation.”

Always Investigating asked the extent of multiagency efforts three weeks into the investigation, and HPD said: “HPD has and continues to work with our law enforcement partners, including the FBI, on the Isabella Kalua investigation.”

“The feds have an immense amount of power,” Kitchens said. “And they’ve got a lot more capability than HPD does have in many different ways.”

Whether it is Isabella now, Benny Rapoza missing on Hawaii Island since 2019 or kids who met tragic ends — like Kytana or Peter Boy Kema — those are just the high-profile missing child cases. According to data gathered from all counties’ police departments and judicial records, thousands of situations a year can be categorized as missing-child incidents.

“That includes custodial interference cases, which are also known as parental abductions, as well as endangered runaways — which is a huge problem here in Hawaii,” Leonard said. “It can be life-threatening sometimes, and their chances of being victimized on the streets are very high.”

Always Investigating asked the head of the Missing Child Center of Hawaii about whether it made progress on plans cited in a 2020 annual report to try to get law enforcement and the criminal justice system to improve their response, not just for abduction, but also custodial cases and missing runaways.

The local missing child center has turned to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children for resources, training and improvements in local tactics. Isabella’s information is in the national database now too. Their other recent efforts include intensive federal training for local authorities.

“These are highly skilled, trained agents who specialize in child abduction response,” Leonard said. “We try to make sure that each unit that responds to these different types of cases has the training that they need and is able to still reach out for additional training and resources. Keep in mind that these folks can get promoted if there’s turnover. So, it’s a constant effort to do refresher trainings.”

Ensuring all types of missing child cases get immediate and thorough attention remains a challenge.

“We definitely are continuing our collaborative efforts to focus on these very difficult areas, including Amber Alert activations, including child abduction response, including understanding the dynamics of a parental abduction, which is very, very complex and includes a lot of legal issues,” Leonard said. “We are always in a state of trying to improve the response. Complacency is never an option, especially in responding to crimes against children.”

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If you have any information about Isabella Kalua, call Crimestoppers at 808-955-8300.
Click here for more missing child alerts about all other active missing-child cases in Hawaii.

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