A Hawaiian Approach to Social Work

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Photo: Cheri Tarutani

By Cheri Tarutani

In her majesty’s Deed of Trust, Queen Liliʻuokalani stated, “all the property of the Trust Estate … shall be used by the Trustees for the benefit of orphan and other destitute children in the Hawaiian Islands, the preference given to Native Hawaiian (NH) children of pure or part-aboriginal blood.”

Since the 1930s, Liliʻuokalani Trust (LT) has been providing social work services to NH kamaliʻi (children) and their ʻohana, first as an affiliate of the Child Welfare League of America. With our longstanding history of providing social work services, LT recognizes March (locally and nationally) as Social Work Month.

To reach our strategic vision of E Nā Kamalei Lupalupa (Thriving Hawaiian Children), we use an Indigenous Social Work Practice framework founded upon restoring harmony to Native Hawaiians through clinical interventions grounded in the knowledge passed down from our kūpuna and those who have come before us.

At LT, our teammates subscribe to the Guiding Responsibilities for Indigenous Social Work Practices of the Academy of Certified Social Workers (2013), “We have four gifts to guide our behavior in exercising our responsibilities; 1) Our languages, our ceremonies, our knowledge and traditions, and our relationship to the land, 2) Our children are recognized as the keepers of our sacred ways: our responsibility is to ensure that they learn and live by these gifts; 3) Our relationships are recognized by keeping with the Laws of Creation through the transfer of ceremony; and 4) Our sacred ways of knowing must be protected for our collective survival.”

Photo: kamaliʻK
Keeping kamaliʻi connected to the Queen is part of the social work practice at Liliʻuokalani Trust. – Courtesy Photo

When kamaliʻi experience our social services, there is no sofa and desk. Instead they may find lauhala mats, a bowl of light, a kahili, or flowers for lei making. Our social services team and the Queen welcome kamaliʻi into our safe spaces (kīpuka) to hear their moʻolelo and build pilina. Together, they address challenges by connecting to Hawaiian values, embracing lessons from the Queen’s story and healing through cultural practices.

When kamaliʻi find strength in their cultural identity, they believe in themselves and they will have a better future as expressed by one of our kamaliʻi, “I never thought I’d do, and I enjoy doing, hula. I’m glad I get to learn some Hawaiian chant. When I finish this program, I would choose to go right instead of the path to hospital, prison or even death.”

Always, and especially in March, we mahalo social workers for the impact they make.


Cheri Tarutani, LCSW, is the managing director of social services for Liliʻuokalani Trust. It is her greatest honor to be a part of carrying out the Queen’s wishes.