I work in the family law division, so we assist social workers in the state Department of Human Services. We represent social workers in court enforcing the Child Protection Act.
Usually Child Protective Services get involved when someone calls the police or the child protection hotline because of either physical or psychological harm to a child. That could be a teacher, a principal, a minister, a doctor, a concerned neighbor or even a fellow family member.
A social worker will go to the house, ask questions, look around. Sometimes the parents aren’t around, the kids are sitting there alone, the house is a disaster. The social workers do their assessment, and, based on that, they’ll either take the children, or call the cops and have them take the children. That’s where we come in, and request for a petition to be filed with the court.
We deal with infants up to 17-year-olds. The safety concerns range all over the place. Everything from neglect, and neglect can include physical and emotional neglect, like abandonment. There’s nutritional neglect, the child is just not being fed right, malnourishment, hygiene neglect, so the child is at risk of infection; they’re filthy. Things like that all the way up to abandonment, so a baby is born and the parents leave the hospital and leave the baby there, or kids are found alone in the apartment or house and the parents are just gone. Then there’s really bad stuff like sexual assault, physical assault, shaken babies.
Not getting into specific cases, but in our courtroom exhibits, we have pictures of apartments in which there are dirty diapers all over the floor in every room, not even closed up, just open. Bugs everywhere. There’s a stench that the neighbors can smell—they’re the ones who called the cops. When the social workers go in, there was a toddler who clearly hadn’t had his diapers changed in two or three days, was sitting in his own filth, hadn’t been bathed. There are no parents present and the 7-year-old says, “Mommy or Daddy left me to take care of the 2-year-old.” Not OK parenting. A majority of the time—75 percent— these cases involve drug use.
I recently became a parent. It makes me look at the facts of a case from a much more personal perspective. I used to just read facts and see them as something to build my case, not that I was cold or shut off. I see my daughter at bath time, she’s naked, about as vulnerable a creature as you can get, a 7-month-old, naked, female child. I don’t know how anyone could sexually violate that. There is no more vulnerable thing on Earth. I may not necessarily think about it immediately when I’m reading the case, but on a day when I have to review a case like that and maybe get ready for a trial because the parents are going to contest it, so I have to bring in a doctor from Kapiolani, who says, “Yes, these injuries are consistent with sexual battery.” On a toddler. Dealing with that, then I go home and hug my kid.
Other attorneys, parents, we’ve talked about some of these cases. Any parent, wealthy to poor, any parent on that economic spectrum could get a hotline call any day. A kid shows up to school with a black eye because they did run into a door. It sounds like something out of Law & Order, “Hey man, my kid just ran into a door.” But kids do fall down the stairs. Shit, when I was kid, I fell all the time. And then the kid goes to school the next day with bruises and a black eye, and the state Department of Education employees are mandatory reporters, they’ve got to call and report it. That’s why we call doctors, because those injuries need to be looked at immediately by a medical professional. We need to know if these injuries are consistent with an accident or they’re consistent with physical harm.
I can’t help but look at some of these cases from a socioeconomic standpoint. The majority of our cases are lower-income families. A parent does not get court-appointed attorneys unless they qualify under a certain income level, and most of our parents qualify.
Yes, sometimes it’s the parent’s fault. We have cases in which it’s difficult to argue that these parents didn’t choose drugs over their kids. It’s hard not to argue that this parent was like, “I’d rather be on ice than take care of my kid, or have my kid in my life.” And that’s a super shitty thing to witness. I can’t empathize, but I sympathize with parents whose backs are against the wall and it’s almost like a choiceless choice. And when families realize, I love my kids so much I will do anything to get them back, those are the parents who kill themselves to do every service we recommend. There are happy endings in cases where parents get their kids back and they have really bettered their lives. It’s huge.
—As told to Tiffany Hill