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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A big part of her job, as Judge Radius sees it, is convincing people to do the right thing.

Photo: Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

A Bright Light

If delivering a baby is the most positive reason to be in a hospital, adoption is the best reason to be in Family Court (unless it’s contested). The afternoon session set aside for adoptions—complete with lei, cameras, collared shirts and, get this, smiles—is a welcome counterpoint to the parade of horribles that fill most other court calendars.

Two blissed-out parents walk into the courtroom with their 5-month-old son, their adoption attorney, and a cheerleading squad of two grandmothers and a family friend. They’ve already signed the two inches of paperwork, gotten releases from the birth parents, secured clearance from the Department of Human Services (DHS) saying they aren’t child abusers, and requested that the name of the infant be changed. When the judge ultimately grants the court’s approval, there is clapping, crying and picture taking. If only all cases were this way.
The next child seeking to be adopted is a 14-year-old boy. Daniel’s mother is in the courtroom, and so are the maternal grandparents he’s been living with since his birth. They all agree that adoption would be in Daniel’s best interest, not only because his mom is moving to the Mainland, but also so that he can be the beneficiary of his grandparents’ Social Security and Medicare. “Plus,” adds Daniel’s grandma, “we love him very much.” Before granting the court’s petition for adoption, the judge makes certain Daniel’s mother understands that, with the termination of her parental rights, her son becomes her brother.

Nine people file into the courtroom next, most of them children. The DHS social worker explains that the foster parents want to adopt a 4-month-old, special-needs baby named Jazmine, whose birthparents are sitting nearby, holding hands. This is not the first time the couple has relinquished a child to these foster parents … it’s the third. (And the last, as the ice-addicted mom decided to have a tubal ligation after this delivery.)

A Second Chance

The juvenile system recognizes that children are not yet fully responsible for their actions, so they should be allowed to make mistakes without being permanently crippled by them. This is based on the enlightened theory that a relatively small amount of resources
devoted to solving a child’s problems now will result in a far lower cost to society in the long run.

This different sort of justice is especially noticeable in two programs designed for at-risk teens: Hawaii Girls Court and Juvenile Drug Court.
Girls in the juvenile justice system have needs that are not being met by a system designed for boys. Judge Karen Radius and her all-female staff at Girls Court are determined to stem the tide of female juvenile arrests (which, in Hawaii, are 12 percent higher than the national average). Adolescent girls are as likely to be offenders as they are victims, and Radius is as likely to be issuing sanctions as hugs. One of the first of its kind in the nation, Girls Court is a success, both by the numbers—47 percent reduced recidivism; 60 percent reduction in runaways; 63 percent reduction in arrests—and by the immeasurable gratitude for second chances.

On Friday afternoons, Judge R. Mark Browning presides over Juvenile Drug Court, where he checks in with each of the teenagers and members of their families who are in the program. He keeps the kids on track with a combination of structure—community service, drug treatment, therapy, home detention, youth prison—and support: “I’m not gonna give up on you, bro; no way, never.”  Probation officers ride the kids hard as they work through the four-step program (which, though rigorous, has a long waiting list). Graduates of the Juvenile Drug Court program have to have earned their high school diplomas or GEDs, and most go on to college.

Both of these programs can point to excellent outcomes. But to what extent Family Court overall is saving kids and families in Hawaii is impossible to measure. Up against the most noble objectives of Family Court are the painful limits of idealism … and no one knows this better than the judges, attorneys, social workers, advocates and therapists who work there every day. For them, Judge Bode Uale sums it up best: “We try to make awful things a little better.”                        

Jana Wolff is a published author and ghostwriter of five books and more than 100 feature articles.


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