Friday, November 19, 2021

An adopted foster child dies in Hawaii – but nobody seems to be asking the right questions

Ariel Sellers, as she was known before her adoption, was reported missing by her foster/adoptive parents.
Now they've been charged with her murder. (Honolulu police dept. photo)

We don’t know why six-year-old Ariel Sellers was taken from her parents. 

But we do know this: 

● Relatives were ready to take her in. They say Hawaii’s family police agency, known as “Child Welfare Services” (CWS) ignored them. 

● Instead Ariel was placed with strangers, Isaac and Lehua Kalua.  Ultimately, they adopted her and changed her name. At the time of her death, her legal name was Isabella Kalua.

● The foster/adoptive parents, who initially reported the child as missing, have been charged with murdering the child.  She allegedly died trapped in a dog cage with duct tape covering her mouth and nose. 

● Despite the pleas of relatives, Isabella’s siblings are still in foster care with strangers. The family is fighting to bring them home, and to overturn the adoption so at least in death Ariel will have her name back.

It’s all stunningly reminiscent of the tragic death of Sara Hunsicker in Pennsylvania.  (She’s better known as Grace Packer because before raping and murdering her, the foster/adoptive parents changed her name.) 

Diversion and double-standards 

But just as in the Hunsicker case, in this latest death the child welfare establishment has been quick to divert attention from its own failings.  And just as in the Hunsicker case, there’s been a tragic double standard in the response. 

CWS is actually whining about budget cuts and staff shortages – as though if you just made the agency that refused to place Isabella with relatives and rushed her into a quick-and-dirty adoptive placement even bigger, this wouldn’t have happened. 

And while whenever the alleged killer is a birth parent, there are accusations that government is going too much to keep families together, now that this child died in a foster/adoptive home, no one is asking if Hawaii is doing too much to tear families apart – even though Hawaii is another one of those states that has a hair-trigger when it comes to tearing apart families.  

In 2019, Hawaii took children from their parents at a rate well above the national average – even when rates of child poverty are factored in.  When you tear apart so many families, there is an enormous incentive to rush children into any home with a bed without looking too closely.  More than three-quarters of those children were taken not because of abuse, but because of “neglect” – which often is confused with poverty. 

We also know that abuse in foster care is widespread, and we know that agencies often turn a blind eye to such abuse. 

We also know that there are profound incentives to rush children into slipshod, quick-and-dirty adoptive placements.  Under the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act, states are paid a bounty of $4,000 to $10,000 for every finalized adoption over a baseline number.  What happens to the money if the adoption fails – or if the adoptive parents are accused of murder? Nothing – the state still gets to keep it! 

But the incentives go beyond the financial.  The one way an agency like CWS is guaranteed good press is when it gets those adoption numbers up. How many news organizations questioning what CWS did in this case have done treacly features about “Adoption Day” celebrations? How many will do them again tomorrow? 

So no, you can’t stop these tragedies by throwing more money at CWS or going on a caseworker hiring binge.  The only way to fix foster care is to have less of it. 

Only then will there be plenty of room in good, safe foster homes for the relatively few children who really need them.  And only then will workers have the time to find children in real danger, whether in their own homes or in foster care.