New Cultural Training Seeks to Improve Outcomes for Child Welfare Cases

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Na Kama a Haloa

The statistics are alarming: In 2021, some 2,500 children, infants to age 18, were in Hawaiʻi’s foster care system. More than 44% of them were of Native Hawaiian ancestry.

Nā Kāma a Hāloa aims to change that. This community-based network was formed in September 2018 “to weave Native Hawaiian wisdom and perspective into the Hawaiʻi foster care system.” Partners include more than 15 agencies and organizations that work in child welfare and/or serve the Native Hawaiian population, including the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Kamehameha Schools, Liliʻuokalani Trust, and Child Welfare Services (CWS). Native Hawaiian foster parents and birth parents and youths with lived experience in child welfare also contribute their valuable insights.

Photo: Venus Rosete Medeiros
Hale Kipa Chief Executive Officer Venus Kauʻiokawēkiu
Rosete-Medeiros.
– Photo: Aubrey Hord

The knowledge that child welfare workers, foster parents and families receiving services have about Native Hawaiian ʻike, history and cultural values varies greatly. Hui Kauhale, one of Nā Kāma a Hāloa’s five committees, develops programs that increase their understanding, so better outcomes can be achieved.

Casey Family Programs, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Victoria S. and Bradley L. Geist Foundation are among the organizations that have funded Hui Kauhale’s projects, one of the most recent being a four-hour module for CWS’ core training program. Development of “Understanding Cultural Diversity, Inclusion & Equity: A Native Hawaiian Perspective” began two years ago. It is geared to newly hired CWS staff members (from entry-level to senior administrators) and new hires for CWS’ contracted providers, among them Catholic Charities, Child & Family Services, and Parents & Children Together.

“It’s a sad fact that Native Hawaiians are disproportionately represented in the local child welfare system,” said Venus Rosete-Medeiros, chief executive officer of Hale Kipa (a Nā Kāma a Hāloa partner) and a member of Hui Kauhale. “Our committee thought that if child welfare workers have a solid background in Hawaiian history, culture and perspectives, they could be more effective at their jobs. It’s human nature for people to approach situations with preconceived ideas, and that impacts the way they relate to others. After completing the training, we hope participants will be able to set aside their biases and assumptions and be better prepared to help the families we serve.”

Rosete-Medeiros; Ekela Kaniaupio-Cozier, Hawaiian culture-based education coordinator at Kamehameha Schools Maui; and Noe Realin, quality assurance advisor for Liliʻuokalani Trust, played key roles in creating the content. The first session, held via Zoom on March 24 with a cohort of 13, included a film, a PowerPoint presentation and facilitated discussions.

One component of the training focuses on the story of kalo and Hāloa, the first Kanaka ʻŌiwi. Kalo is revered as Kānaka ʻŌiwi’s life-sustaining ancestor. It also symbolizes ʻohana. ʻOhā, the buds of the corm, are replanted in the loʻi to yield new crops of kalo just as new generations of ʻohana thrive when they have strong roots and are properly tended.

“Kalo is a metaphor for keiki and ʻohana,” Rosete-Medeiros said. “Every part of the kalo has purpose and value, just as every member of the ʻohana does. The loʻi kalo is a metaphor for the child welfare system and the role it plays in supporting families. Kalo needs the rich soil and clean, flowing water in the loʻi to grow strong and healthy. Agencies working alongside Child Welfare Services provide parenting classes, mental health counseling, substance use treatment, employment and housing assistance and other vital resources for families to grow strong and healthy.”

ʻAuwai carry fresh water to the loʻi kalo; an auē situation results when they become clogged or stagnant. Similarly, problems arise when efforts and effective communication in the child welfare system are blocked.

“When kalo is being cultivated, all of the workers are responsible for taking care of the ʻauwai, so clean, fresh water constantly flows into the loʻi, ensuring bountiful harvests,” Rosete-Medeiros said. “It is the same for those of us who work in child welfare. We have a kuleana to do our part, to work together to ensure that programs and services for our keiki, ʻōpio and ʻohana run smoothly. That support is delivered in many ways by many people, and everyone’s kūlana is important.”

Understanding fundamental Hawaiian values — aloha, ʻohana, mālama, laulima, lōkahi and puʻuhonua — is another pillar of the training. All are rooted in Hawaiian history and tradition.

For example, Rosete-Medeiros points out how puʻuhonua were refuges for injured warriors in ancient times. The warriors were treated there by kāhuna lapaʻau until they were able to return home or to the battlefield. Puʻuhonua were also sanctuaries for those who broke a kapu. When they completed the required rituals, they could return to society, their transgressions forgiven.

“We can help mākua be their children’s puʻuhonua,” Rosete-Medeiros said. “We can help them create a home environment that provides the love, acceptance, emotional support and guidance that keiki need to become healthy, confident and successful adults. It’s important that the ʻohana we serve have a puʻuhonua, a place where they feel safe, happy, comfortable and nurtured.”

Child welfare workers can also be a puʻuhonua by being kind, encouraging, respectful and receptive rather than punitive, negative, discriminatory and judgmental. “Vulnerable individuals most likely have experienced some sort of trauma in their lives,” Rosete-Medeiros says. “It’s important to understand the effects trauma has on behavior and to have the skills, empathy and knowledge to devise a service plan that will promote healing. That saying is so true: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”