Ka Wai Ola
Photo: Jan Dill
Jan Dill, founder of Partners in Development – Photo: Alice Silbanuz

The Maasai people of Africa greet one another by saying “and how are the children?” When he first learned this, it struck a resounding chord with Jan Dill, founder of Partners in Development (PID). He was moved by the Maasai’s cultural focus on the well-being of their children, and he thought about what would happen if our people said these words ten times a day; how it would affect our collective thinking. “It would keep the welfare of our children on our windshields,” Dill contends. “As Hawaiians, I think we need to do the same thing. We need to ask ourselves ʻpehea nā keiki?’”

The well-being of our keiki has been Dill’s focus for most of his career. PID runs a number of programs that are keiki and ʻohana focused, including Hui Hoʻomalu, a program dedicated to recruiting, training and supporting Native Hawaiian “Resource Families” (previously called “foster parents”) to mālama our Hawaiian keiki in Hawaiʻi’s foster care system.

Hawaiians are over-represented in the foster care system. About 47% of Hawaiʻi’s foster children are Native Hawaiian. “We’re doubly present in a negative statistic,” declares Dill. “Our children are being taken from their families. We need to do something about it. We need to reaffirm the core of the Hawaiian culture which is family, which is a commitment to community, and a commitment to the success of our children.”

Not Enough Families

Although Hawaiian children comprise almost half of all keiki in foster care, there aren’t enough Hawaiian Resource Families to care for them. Without enough Hawaiian Resource Families, when Hawaiian keiki are removed from their homes by the Department of Human Services (DHS), they are often placed with Resource Families from other communities and cultures. In fact, many of the available Resource Families are military, so Hawaiian keiki may be placed in homes where everything is unfamiliar: language, food, rules, customs and expectations. These traumatized keiki often experience culture shock on top of everything else.

As recently as ten years ago, the lack of Native Hawaiian (or even local) Resource Families, resulted in the eventual adoption of Hawaiian foster children who were in the care of military Resource Families. When these families left Hawaiʻi, their adopted Hawaiian children left with them, permanently separated from their birth families, culture and communities.

This rarely happens anymore, and certainly not intentionally. The mindset at DHS is that the system needs to provide things that keep dislocated keiki healthy (connection, culture and values) in preparation for their return to their families and communities.

A Complex Social Problem

The need for foster care is the result of complex social problems rooted in poverty and substance abuse and fueled by depression and hopelessness. Kauʻi Keola and husband, Rocco, have fostered more than 80 keiki in their 20 years as a Resource Family. She notes that the high percentage of Hawaiian children in the foster care system correlates to the high percentage of Hawaiian adults who are addicted to drugs or incarcerated. “There are children attached to those adults,” points out Keola.

DHS has established proactive programs to help families before situations escalate to the point of removing the children from the home, and according to Dill, they have promoted engagement between the various agencies serving families and foster children. Dill also points out the need for organizations like OHA, Liliʻuokalani Trust and Kamehameha Schools to work together to develop clear and measurable objectives for the health and well-being of our families, and to work alongside DHS and organizations like PID, Catholic Charities and EPIC ʻOhana to galvanize the Hawaiian community to be very intentional about its care for foster children and the health of the family. “Foster children are the effects of the lack of attention that we’ve paid to family health and education,” says Dill. “We must strengthen our families, or we will always have foster children.”

Dill believes that if Hawaiian organizations come together, we can do better by our people; that we can do things that bring substantive and transformational change. “We need to address the real causes of the issues. We need to make that differentiation and decide to invest in things that make transformational change possible, in issues that are important such as early education, foster care, kūpuna care, employment and housing.”

Reunification is the Goal

Although fostering children sometimes results in adoption, the goal for DHS and for Resource Parents is reunification of the family. In a perfect world, the children’s biological parents will be open to change and while they are getting healthy and strong, their children are being cared for by Resource Families in their home community so the children can be in a familiar environment, remain in their school, and stay in contact with their parents. Sadly, this is not the norm.

Delia Ulima is the Statewide Initiative Manager for the HI HOPES initiative under EPIC ʻOhana, an agency whose mission is to strengthen ʻohana and enhance the welfare of children and youth. Ulima echoes the goal of reunification saying, “ideally, the child can return home in 12 to 24 months. But often that does not happen. The statistics are scary.”

Despite the best efforts of DHS, support agencies and Resource Families, reunification is not the outcome for many foster children. “Drugs are involved in so many cases,” said Keola, “and it’s difficult for the parents to become clean and sober. In those cases, reunification is low.”

Complicated family relationships often prevent extended family members from becoming licensed to foster the children either, however child-specific fostering by ʻohana or a family friend is the best-case scenario for children removed from their homes. Michael and Jessica Hikalea successfully overcame drug addiction and were reunited with their four children with the support of extended family who stepped forward to kökua.

The Hikaleas both struggled with addiction over a period of years. Their keiki were removed from their home three separate times as they worked to get clean. All three times, members of their extended ʻohana took on the kuleana to foster their keiki. “We are very blessed and grateful,” said Michael. “Knowing our children were with family was important. It made us feel more secure. When we went through treatment, we were more driven and focused on getting better.” While they count themselves fortunate, they also emphasized the need for Hawaiian children to be with Hawaiian families. “It’s sad when Hawaiian foster children aren’t with Hawaiian families,” added Jessica. “It hits the children harder, emotionally, to be in another culture. It’s not as comfortable for them and can be a step back for everyone.”

The Importance of Making a Connection

Keola Limkin Pagud, an MSW candidate at U.H. Mānoa, is a former foster child. “When I was 15 my five siblings and I were removed from our mother’s care and placed into separate foster homes,” shares Pagud. Fortunately, Pagud was placed with a wonderful Resource Caregiver, a Hawaiian man who supported Pagud’s athletic activities and treated him as his own. “He was compassionate and also taught us discipline through daily chores and sticking to curfews,” Pagud recalls. The man he affectionately refers to as “Uncle Brada” allowed him to stay with him after graduating from high school, even though he had “aged out” of the system in February of his senior year.

Billie Ann Bruce spent half of her childhood in the foster care system (see related story). Removed from her family at birth, she does not remember how many Resource Families she was placed with as an infant and toddler. When she was permanently removed from her father’s care at age 14, she was not as lucky as Pagud. She was placed in four homes in two years. The fifth home, with a family friend, was finally a good match, and Bruce remained there with foster mom “Julie” until she “aged out” of the system. Now a junior at U.H. Hilo, Bruce is working on B.A. degrees in Administration of Justice and Psychology. She stays in touch with Julie who is a source of support and encouragement for her.

For many children in the foster care system, being shuffled from home to home is the norm, Ulima explains. “The biggest factor is fit. There aren’t enough foster parents, so DHS is trying to get the children in wherever they can.” Adds Ulima, “you’re talking supply and demand.”

The fact is that many foster children are traumatized, whether from the problems in their home, their forced removal from their family, their placement in an unfamiliar environment with strangers, or all three.

“The biggest successes are when foster children and parents make a real connection,” says Ulima, “when foster parents hang in there when the child punches the wall or cuts out of school. When the adults in their lives don’t give up on them, and the children have a semblance of normalcy in their lives and are able to do the things that their peers are doing and which help them to thrive, the system can work. But few placements are like that.” Ulima believes the key is establishing real, authentic relationships between foster children and their caregivers, and providing care and attention to the children’s mental health needs. “Children are hurt when they are separated from their family, community and culture. It would be better for Hawaiian children to be placed with Native Hawaiian families they can relate to.”

A Call to Action for the Lāhui

The consistent message from Native Hawaiians involved in the foster care system in any capacity is that there is a dire need for more Hawaiians to be involved as Resource Caregivers and Resource Families. But becoming a Resource Caregiver is not a trivial decision and fostering children can be tough. “Inventory your heart,” advises Dill, “and ask yourself if this is an area where you are able to expend a lot of emotion, a lot of aloha. And if the answer is yes, then stand up and go. We are always looking for Hawaiian families to step into the breach. The larger the pool, the stronger it’s going to be in terms of success. Hawaiians need to really think and pray about this because it’s a spiritual venture. It really is.”

“Our children need help,” says Keola passionately. “They may not be your biological relation, or even someone you know, but there are many Hawaiian children out there who need a place to call home temporarily or permanently. And it’s on us to raise them in our culture, with our food, with our customs, with our beliefs. We need to mālama our lāhui. It has to be our people teaching our children so we can become a stronger nation on our own. It’s our kuleana.”

Jon and Mary Osorio are former Resource Caregivers who eventually adopted the child they were fostering. Says Mary, “any child who has experienced trauma needs somebody to help them through to the other side and to replace those traumatic experiences with loving experiences. There are just too many children out there. Even if we’re afraid we need to do it because they need us, and it builds up the whole community to raise healthy children.”

“You know, we are natural advocators, we really are. Native Hawaiians are natural advocators, especially for things like children,” adds Jon. “So don’t be afraid of this. It will bring out the best in you.”

Pagud’s caregiver, Uncle Brada, had a powerful impact on his life. His strong family and Hawaiian cultural values helped Pagud become interested in learning about Hawaiian history and culture himself, and he is determined to pay it forward someday. “Uncle Brada passed away a few years ago,” shared Pagud. “I hope to foster in the future to honor his legacy.”

“Foster care can be mentally and emotionally draining,” says Bruce, but she quickly notes that it is also a very joyful thing. “Julie would cry with happiness for my successes and awards,” Bruce reminisces. “It can be an amazing, joyful, life-changing experience.” Like Pagud, Bruce plans to foster children herself someday. “I want to give back. One person can change a life. You can be the person to change a child’s whole life if you’re willing to take on that kuleana.”

Ulima has also been a Resource Caregiver. Like the Osorios, her fostering experience resulted in adoption. “It’s my kuleana as a Native Hawaiian,” reflects Ulima. “It’s my kuleana to give back and to serve.” To our lāhui she says, “If you have the heart, a home, and the willingness to be trained, you might be the difference between a Hawaiian child thriving, or becoming another statistic.”

Taking on the kuleana of foster care can seem overwhelming. But if our communities would view it as a “kākou thing” it could be less daunting. Dill shared that on the mainland there is a movement in the Black community called “One Church, One Child.” One family in the church fosters, and the rest of the church community makes a commitment to support them by providing resources and respite. “I’d like to see that in the Hawaiian community,” says Dill. “You know, one child, one canoe club…whatever. Let’s do it.”

Continues Dill, “if we were to embrace the kuleana of caring for our children, foster care as we know it today would be gone. My vision is that Hawaiians will just stand up and say, okay, we are going to fulfill the kuleana that we’ve always had: the care of our children.”

No laila, he nīnau no kākou: Pehea nā keiki?

Getting Involved

Getting involved as a Resource Caregiver is simple and the need is great. However, this is an important kuleana and before you begin, please consider the following requirements:

  1. The desire and ability to accept a foster child into your home based on the reunification plan made by the state: Foster care is temporary, and a resource home needs to be a safe, nurturing environment for the child while a permanent plan is made. Reunification with the birth family is the goal for every child. The next option is placement with relatives.
  2. Space in your home for an additional child: Generally, a child in foster care may not share a room with an adult, but may share a room with other children of the same gender.
  3. Income must cover usual household expenses: A household must be able to show that regular household expenses do not exceed monthly household income.
  4. Completion of criminal, child abuse and neglect background checks, and a sex offender registry check: All adult household members must be able to show a recent/credible history of safe behavior.
  5. Families must be planning to remain in Hawaiʻi for at least two years: There may be exceptions to this time frame if you are open to urgent need groups such as large sibling groups (4+) or teens.

Interested in becoming a Resource Caregiver and fostering Native Hawaiian keiki?
Contact Partners in Development online at hui@pidfoundation.org. Or call: 441-1117 (O‘ahu), 888-879-8970 (toll-free for Neighbor Islands)