Hawaii Family Court

Hawaii’s Family Court of the First Judicial Circuit is a place no one wants to go, and a place we couldn’t live without. Writer Jana Wolff gained special access to the court to shed some light on what happens inside.


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Hallway conferences and overflow crowds are common in family court.

Photo: Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

Roller-coaster lives

Though the stories are different and the cases vary—from divorce to domestic violence and from juvenile delinquency to child abuse—drug addiction is a common thread. That puts Family Court on the front line in the war against crystal meth.

Another reason for the uptick in cases that land in Family Court is the high percentage of babies born out of wedlock each year in our state (40 percent), particularly the children born to teenage children. In spite of efforts to resist such a sad inheritance, some kids get swept into the vicious cycle of poverty, crime, abuse and addiction, and gain early membership in the system.

For all of the upheaval in the lives of troubled families (and maybe because of it), a noticeable number of infants brought into Family Court by their struggling parents have names like Serenity, Sunny and Song—all poignant in their hopefulness. The reality, though, can be more like a hamster wheel of accelerating wrath. In his divorce courtroom, Murakami regularly encounters the human urge for revenge. When parents seem to hate each other more than they love their kids, “Everyone loses,” says the judge. The biggest losers, of course, are the children.

That’s why Judge Karen Radius admonishes parents whose kids have been taken by Child Protective Services (CPS) and then returned to their homes: “Roller coasters belong in theme parks, and kids don’t need that ride.” To the 28-year-old alcoholic mom who doesn’t know the last name or whereabouts of her baby’s father, the judge grants a little more time to clean up her act, but warns, “Your kids are not ping-pong balls; they deserve a life without drama.”

The same is true in setting visitation schedules. Twenty-two-year-old Terrence pulls out of his backpack a small trophy like the ones kids get at the end of soccer season. This one says “Best Father,” and he proudly displays it on the courtroom table for the judge to see. Malia, his ex-girlfriend, would like to take away the gift she once gave Terrence, but then she’s in paternity court to take away as much as she can regarding custody, visitation and child support for their 18-month-old son, Shawn.

As the sordid details of their lives are uncovered, the decisions get more consequential: dad has threatened mom’s new boyfriend; mom was once in Kahi Mohala for overdosing; dad was once in Kahi Mohala for threatening suicide; mom has lost her job; dad works only part-time; mom’s been late for visitation 14 times since the last court appearance; dad has smoked weed; mom has smoked weed; both mom and dad love Shawn with all their hearts. And dad has three other children with three other women. At the conclusion of this sad saga, the judge grants the mother sole custody; grants the father three days of visitation per week; assigns both parents child support payments based on minimum wage; and refers the case to CPS.

Mobile justice

While thousands of people come into Family Court each year, the court goes out to others. Each week, a judge, bailiff, court clerk and sheriff pile into a state-owned car and head to the Judiciary’s secure Detention Home facility, to the Hawaii State Hospital in Kaneohe and to The Queen’s Medical Center, where a makeshift courtroom is set up in a nondescript conference room so that individuals in these facilities can get a hearing.

Hidden in the maze of hallways at Queen’s is a meeting room that sits right next to a bathroom, so that court proceedings are punctuated every few minutes with the sound of flushing. The mentally ill patients escorted into the room seem to be in one of two states: agitated or out of it.

Twenty-five-year-old Keoni is agitated, and a misspelling he sees on the certificate that his public defender reads aloud only adds to his restlessness, though he listens intently as his mother tells the story of a good boy who once had a classified job with the military, lots of friends and a nice place to live in Washington, D.C. That is, until his life unraveled and he moved back home to Hawaii with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. On nights when the demons are scaring him, Keoni comes into his mom’s bedroom—her singing and praying seem to help. But when he locked them both in there one day and went into a rage, she was the one who was scared. Keoni was taken to Tripler in restraints.

After hearing testimony from the treating psychiatrist and from the patient himself, the family court judge rules that there is sufficient risk of Keoni hurting himself and others to warrant up to 30 more days as an inpatient (or shorter if his medications have stabilized his condition). But the judge also tells the young man: “I am very encouraged by the way you handled yourself today and by the fact that you have goals for your life … it’s not something I see much of in this type of case.” With that, Keoni is whisked out the door and sent back to a place he can’t wait to leave.

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