Hawaii found to be only partially compliant with federal child abuse laws

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AP Photo: Gregory Bull

Last month, a four-year investigation into the nation’s primary child abuse law — the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 (CAPTA) — was published in a joint effort by Boston Globe and ProPublica. The investigation found that, of CAPTA’s 27 federally-mandated provisions, not a single state is compliant with all of them. Including Hawaii.

The investigation, authored by Emily Palmer and Jessica Huseman, states that “while some states provide children with attorneys…Hawaii may pull someone with absolutely no training into the courtroom; sometimes, they haven’t even met the children before representing them.”

That’s not the only area in which Hawaii fails to adequately protect children who have been abused. When it comes to drug-affected infants, hospitals are supposed to protect babies who may have been affected by drug use during pregnancy. But Hawaii is only “minimally compliant” in this regard according to the study:

Hawaii does not consider prenatal substance use to be abuse or neglect on its own. The state creates plans for infants affected by both illegal and legal drugs, but Hawaii was found partially compliant because health providers are not required to notify CPS of infants affected by prescription drugs and they therefore would not receive plans of safe care as mandated under CAPTA. The state’s monitoring system also spreads the responsibility among some 100 private agencies in what appears a shirking of its duty, inhibiting its ability to report even a fraction of the total plans created in the state, per federal mandate. The agency did not provide federally mandated data regarding the creation of plans of safe care.

I reached out to one of the study’s co-authors, Jessica Huseman, to gain more clarity on the specifics surrounding Hawaii’s challenges to comply with CAPTA.

KHON2: Your investigation showed that not a single state followed all 27 provisions of the Child Abuse Protection and Treatment Act. Broadly speaking, is this noncompliance a product of human error/neglect, state systems being ill-equipped and overstrained, or something else (or all the above)?

Huseman: I think that the primary issue is funding. The law is incredibly broad and requires a lot from states, but provides nearly no funding to assist in compliance. Over and over again, state officials told us that they did not comply because they did not have the resources to do so. 

KHON2: What do you think is the primary factor behind Hawaii’s areas of noncompliance?

Huseman: Hawaii was more compliant than many states.  The data they provided was clean and contained all required categories. There were some red flags related to the track of near-fatalities. The state says it has just about as many near fatalities as fatalities, which – for reasons you can logically reason through – is likely deeply inaccurate. More likely, these near fatalities simply aren’t being reported. Other areas – like plans of safe care – were not fully compliant, but Hawaii was not out of step with most other states.

KHON2: One of the details that stood out to me was that the state’s monitoring system of hospital plans to protect babies who may have been affected by drugs during pregnancy is diffused across so many private agencies that there is little (if any) meaningful oversight. Do you know how this happened? Was it setup like this to begin with, or did it bloat over time?

Huseman: It appears to me that the state – like many others – simply did not set up a consistent system for this communication. It requires an extensive amount of resources, which the state simply doesn’t have.

KHON2: Does the state follow-up with those private agencies at all, or does it simply accept whatever they report and leave it at that?

Huseman: It varies from social worker to social worker. Like many states, Hawaii enforces this extremely inconsistently.

KHON2: Compared to other states, how normal is it to outsource monitoring to numerous private agencies like this?

Huseman: Very. It’s a common move for cash-strapped states, and is successful in some cases and disastrous in others.

KHON2: Your report mentioned that Hawaii may use people with no legal training to represent at-risk kids in court. What exactly does it mean for the guardian ad litem to have no training — are they certified attorneys? 

Huseman: No. Hawaii offers training courses and any adult who completes the course can represent children.
*Author’s note: the training program is offered through CASA Hawaii. Volunteers who pass the training program are eligible to represent only one child at a time as their court appointed special advocate (CASA) under the supervision of CASA Hawaii. You can learn more about the certification program here.

KHON2: What is the general effect on these children of having inconsistent legal representation?

Huseman: It depends! Some children are very well represented by attentive volunteers. Others get lost in the system.

KHON2: You mentioned in the study that some agencies in the country were more receptive and cooperative than others. What agencies from Hawaii were you in contact with, and how would you assess their willingness to participate in the investigation?

Huseman: Hawaii’s Department of Human Services was, comparatively, extremely communicative.


Ultimately, several states are much less compliant with CAPTA’s provisions than Hawaii, and much less transparent about it. That is paltry silver lining, however, and could hardly be considered the bright side of otherwise devastating national findings. Hawaii may not be the worst offender in the nation, but it can still do much better to protect some of the most vulnerable people among us.

The full investigation can be read here.

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