Preventing child abuse requires vigilance

By Howard Garval
This article appeared in the Island Voices section of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on 12-13-2016. (subscription required)

The imminent trial of the parents of Peter “Peter Boy” Kema has brought the social problem of child abuse back into the limelight. The East Hawaii community is to be thanked for continuing to pursue justice for Peter Boy, and perhaps this awful chapter among child abuse cases can finally be closed.
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s editorial “Don’t look away from child abuse” (Our View, Dec. 3) highlighted the importance of community response to alert authorities to children who are being abused or are at high risk of abuse or neglect.

Community residents need to know that they can file an anonymous report to the state Department of Human Services, Child Abuse Hotline (from Oahu call 808-832-5300, from a Neighbor Island call 1-800-494-3991). This is important because often there is fear that if a report is filed, that the parents will know who made the report and try to retaliate in the community against the person who reported them.

Clearly, preventing abuse before it ever occurs is the ideal solution in terms of protecting children and is also the least costly both financially and socially to our society. At Child & Family Service, we employ an evidence-based model called Healthy Families America with significant success rates in preventing child abuse, often with families who are at high risk of such abuse. These models also support normal child development and school readiness and help families ensure that their children have a medical home and immunizations.

However, as successful as these models have been and need to continue, they must be voluntary. As a society we cannot force families to accept such services if there has been no actual abuse or neglect that has been substantiated.

State Department of Human Services’ (DHS) Child Welfare Services, like others all over the country, utilize what is known as the “Differential Response System” that employs a risk assessment tool to determine the severity of the situation.

In some cases no risk is found to be present and the case is closed. In extreme situations DHS Child Welfare Services may ultimately move to legally terminate parental rights when the abuse is severe. In other cases it may not warrant an investigation, but it is of enough concern that the family is contacted to participate in a family strengthening services program that is strongly encouraged, but not mandated.

Unfortunately, many families who need the most help in which parents may already be abusing their children, can be the least likely to accept help voluntarily. Many of these parents vehemently deny the abuse and may blame the state for either removing the children or investigating them for abuse. We know that we need to get past this type of denial with parents to find ways to help them. Parents willing to accept responsibility can then find the courage to change, for the long term.

Child abuse is a very complex and challenging social problem that we must aggressively try to prevent and treat so that our keiki can be safe and nurtured by parents or other caretakers. Nonprofits like ours will continue to provide prevention and treatment services for families, and the community can play a key role in identifying and reporting child abuse. By working together, our most vulnerable citizens can be protected and saved.

This article appeared in the Island Voices section of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on 12-13-2016. (subscription required)

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