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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 21, 2006

Girl's will kept siblings together in foster care

By Rod Ohira
Advertiser Central O'ahu Writer

Felicia Kahele, 16, will represent the Hale Pono 'Ewa Beach Boys and Girls Club in a regional Youth of the Year Competition in July.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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FOSTER CARE IN HAWAI'I

A rally at 3 p.m. Thursday will take place at the state Capitol to celebrate national foster care month and raise public awareness about the 2,700 children in the state's foster care system who "through no fault of their own, must live away from their parents." There will be exhibits from every foster care agency in Hawai'i. Speakers include Lt. Gov. James Aiona and Department of Human Services Director Lillian Koller. For more information, call Heart Gallery Hawaii at 441-0999 or write heartgalleryhawaii @hawaiiantel.net.

  • The Hawai'i Foster Youth Coalition, which has four chapters on O'ahu, is looking at expansion in 2006 to Kailua, Waimanalo and Hawai'i Kai. The coalition has 150 members who participate in once-a-month meetings in the community to assist and counsel other foster children. For information, call 255-8365.

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    Felicia Kahele was 8 years old when her mother started using crystal methamphetamine.

    By the time she was 11, Felicia said, she had seen her mother beaten in fights and had been left in the care of strangers for "weeks at a time."

    "We were moving from house to house because we couldn't pay the rent," said Felicia, now 16. "But sixth grade is when it really got bad, 'cause they got deep, deep, deep into drugs. Mom and Dad would leave me and my two brothers by ourselves or with strangers for weeks. We didn't have electricity, hardly any food, only water."

    Today, Felicia Kahele is a junior at Campbell High School, and her story of keeping her four brothers and sisters together after state Child Welfare Services removed them from their home is being trumpeted by the state's Boys & Girls Club, which she will represent in the Pacific Region Youth of the Year competition July 10-12 in Anaheim, Calif.

    Felicia's presentation tells of how she took charge of her younger siblings in the absence of her parents, helping them stay together and out of trouble.

    Pono Mulivai, Felicia's case manager at Hale Pono 'Ewa Beach Boys & Girls Club, says Felicia's story is one of inspiration.

    "Despite what she has gone through, she was able to get out, and it's rare, very rare," Mulivai said. "A lot of (children in her situation) just follow and continue to repeat the pattern of their parents."

    Each year, about 2,700 Island children are in foster care, according to the state Department of Human Services. Felicia and her siblings were among 2,971 children statewide in 2001 who were victims of maltreatment in homes, according to the Child Welfare Services division.

    "There are kids going through worse than we did," Felicia said. "Kids who are homeless with parents doing drugs, living on the beach. I want to show people that kids going through this can make it, that we don't all go astray."

    Maile Kahele, Felicia's mother, said Wednesday that she is proud of her daughter and her other children, and regrets having lost custody of them. Melanie Kahele, 26, Maile Kahele's younger sister, became a licensed foster caregiver four years ago to care for Felicia and her siblings, and the aunt assumed legal guardianship of them 18 months ago.

    "I left them for days, maybe, but never weeks," Maile Kahele said. "The only thing I did wrong was I did drugs ... ice just made it worse. But I never did it in front of my kids, and I never stole or robbed anybody to support my habit.

    "I regret it all. Felicia did do a lot, and I'm proud of her. But she and all my kids had values. I raised them that way. Yes, I love my children, and I think I get love, unconditionally, back even though I can't see them that much."

    Felicia wasn't always open about her family life.

    The sixth-grade president of her school student council, Felicia tried to hide her home life from her teachers, fearing she and her siblings would be separated if Child Welfare Services found out.

    "I didn't want anybody to find out, so I used to make sure me and my brothers went to school and looked alright so nobody would get suspicious," Felicia said. "I didn't want us to get taken away, 'cause I knew kids who were in foster care, and I didn't want us to become one of them."

    She and her brothers would stay in school as long as they could to avoid going home, particularly when "strangers" were around. They would eat and sleep at friends' houses. Other times, relatives helped by bringing food. Gradually, social workers started talking to the siblings at school, questioning them about Mom and Dad.

    "I guess one of the younger ones said something wrong and gave it away," Felicia said. "That's when they came to our house, told us to pack, and took me and my two sisters out to the house we were going to live in with a family we didn't know."

    Felicia and her two brothers Marc, 15, and Mana, 13 and sisters Myisha, 11, and Mariah, 8, were separated briefly in 2001 before moving together to various foster homes and then in with their aunt.

    For Felicia, it was a confusing and hurtful time in which she lost self-confidence. She responded by overeating, ballooning to 250 pounds. "I felt it was my fault that I couldn't hold us together anymore, and that I was a burden to everybody," Felicia said. "There was nobody I could talk to."

    Recovery started when they moved in with their aunt.

    "If Felicia wasn't there for her brothers and sisters, who knows where they would be," Melanie Kahele said. "They follow the oldest, and children can turn bad, but they're all really good kids who appreciate what they have. Felicia was always mature, but no kid should have to go through what she did."

    Marc is now on the principal's list, Myisha is in the fifth grade and reading at an eighth-grade level, and Felicia and her other siblings are "doing good" in school, Felicia said.

    Felicia joined the Hale Pono 'Ewa Beach Boys & Girls Club three years ago. She's involved with the Smart Leaders, Teen Pregnancy Prevention, and Leaders in Training programs. She tells her family's story in hopes of helping others.

    "I think everything happens for a reason, and the reason for us was to make me, my brothers and sisters strong to do better, so we can get to where we want to go," she said.

    Felicia and her siblings have now been living in 'Ewa Beach for nearly three years. Felicia has gained a sense of normalcy and strength.

    "What saved me was I didn't want to become a statistic," she said. "You see kids (in our situation) doing drugs, running away. I used that as the things to stay away from, what was going to make us different.

    "I came to a point where I realized that, you know, it wasn't my fault, and there was nothing I could have done. I finally talked to some people I trusted, friends and family, and I was able to let it go."

    Reach Rod Ohira at rohira@honoluluadvertiser.com.