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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Hawaii law doesn't require follow-up on child abuse cases

By Peter Boylan
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawai'i law does not require the state to follow up on misdemeanor cases of criminal child abuse, something that could explain why a 12-year-old girl found malnourished in January went unnoticed for seven years after a previous abuse report, a former state investigator said.

The parents regained custody of their daughter a month after accusations in January 2000 that the girl then 5 was locked in a room for 12 hours a day without food, water and bathroom access.

Police found the girl malnourished again this year at her parents' Kina'u Street apartment. She weighed less than 50 pounds when a typical 12-year-old girl weighs 80 to 85 pounds.

The girl's parents were indicted July 3 on charges of attempted second-degree murder. Both pleaded not guilty, and a trial is set for Sept. 10. Child Welfare Services has had foster custody of the child since January.

On Jan. 23, 2000, the girl was taken into emergency foster custody by the state and was examined by a physician at Kapi'olani Medical Center for Women & Children as part of standard procedure in child custody cases, according to a source with knowledge of the case who asked not to be identified because of not being authorized to speak.

The doctor determined the girl was not abused, the source said. The girl was returned to them Feb. 23, 2000, court records show.

The criminal records of her parents Denise and Melvin Wright were wiped clean after they completed court-ordered parenting classes.

'MISTAKES HAPPEN'

Family Court judges often return a child to parents accused of abuse or neglect when the parents have no criminal history and cooperate with authorities, said Ruthann Quitiquit, a former investigator for the state Department of Human Services and president of the nonprofit welfare service provider Parents and Children Together.

"It is a hard job, and they do the best they can but mistakes are going to happen," Quitiquit said. "Why did they return this child to this family seven years ago? Only the judge and the worker (child welfare worker on the case) can tell you that, but it's a hard job and the push from the government is to reunify the child with their parents."

"Mistakes happen because you listen to the kid's story and the kid isn't always telling the truth, then you listen to the parents, who always deny everything, and it's difficult to get a read in a short amount of time. They (investigators) have to triage and determine if it is an isolated incident."

State Human Services Director Lillian B. Koller did not return messages seeking comment.

In the 2000 case, the Wrights were both sentenced to one-year's probation and ordered to enroll in parenting classes after each pleaded no contest to a single charge of endangering the welfare of a minor in the second-degree, a misdemeanor.

Denise M. Wright attended parenting classes from June until September 2000 and Melvin Wright Jr. attended classes from September until October 2000.

Terry H. Fisher said she did not remember Melvin Wright from the five classes he took. Fisher is a retired program director with Adult Friends for Youth, the nonprofit agency that counseled Melvin Wright.

Fisher said the program Melvin Wright attended, "Parenting for the Millennium," does not require follow-up meetings if successfully completed. "We don't do any testing to to see if they integrate the material," Fisher said.

EARLIER INCIDENTS

Ten years ago, there were at least three high-profile cases in which an abused child was turned over to authorities, then returned to the parents and later harmed.

  • Peter Boy Kema disappeared sometime in the spring or summer of 1997. He would have turned 6 that May. His father, Peter Kema Sr., has long maintained that he traveled to O'ahu and gave the boy away to a family friend identified as Auntie Rose Makuakane in August 1997. Police have never been able to prove the woman exists.

    Social workers had taken Peter Boy away from his parents after he suffered a spiral fracture of his left leg at 3 months old, but he was eventually returned.

  • Reubyne Buentipo Jr., a 4-year-old Kailua boy, was so badly beaten by his mother in 1997 that he was left brain-damaged, blind and in a vegetative state.

    The boy had been in foster care, and state case workers returned the child to his mother despite earlier injuries to the boy that left him hospitalized in June 1995 and April 1996.

  • Cedra Edwards, a 20-month-old child abuse victim, was killed in December 1997. A lawsuit by the girl's grandmother alleged the Department of Human Services obtained a court order placing the infant in temporary foster care, but the girl was returned to her mother in August 1997.

    The department was supervising the mother and daughter, but the death occurred less than five months later, according to the suit. The suit was settled out of court in 2002.

    Reach Peter Boylan at pboylan@honoluluadvertiser.com.