Warnings raise ire of Hawaii ferry protesters
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By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
By Derrick DePledge
Children with boogie boards and surfboards who jumped into Nawiliwili Harbor on Kaua'i to confront the Hawaii Superferry last month prompted warnings by the Lingle administration that parents could be subject to child welfare investigations if it happens again.
The administration said the warnings, along with a list of more than a dozen possible criminal charges for illegal protests, are to inform parents of the consequences of violating federal security zones when the Superferry returns. The administration has stressed that legal protesters would not face any penalties.
But rather than diffuse tensions on Kaua'i, the warnings of potential child welfare investigations in particular have led to an emotional backlash. Several people on Kaua'i and on Internet blogs and discussion boards have seized on the warnings as an example of what they believe is the Lingle administration's overreaction to dissent.
"It's unprecedented that they've used child protective services as a political weapon, especially one to censor people, to censor their right to speak, to censor their right to protest," said Andrea Brower, an activist in Anahola who was among the protesters who went into the harbor to block the ferry.
"It's pretty telling how far the Lingle administration is willing to go to ensure that these private business owners get their way."
Keone Kealoha, director of Malama Kaua'i, said that warnings seem to be at the root of the administration's xresponse to the protests.
"It just seems, again, that they are escalating the consequences instead of listening to the concerns," he said.
The Coast Guard has established a federal security zone at Nawiliwili Harbor for Superferry voyages and has set aside a designated protest area off Kalapaki Beach. A separate security zone extends 100 yards around the ferry.
People could be charged with endangering the welfare of minors — with a possible year in jail and $2,000 fine — for knowingly risking a child's physical or mental welfare. Separate child welfare investigations could be initiated by the state Department of Human Services if parents place their children into the federal security zones or the path of the ferry.
Children themselves could be charged in Family Court if they break the law at protests.
Lillian Koller, the director of the state Department of Human Services, said parents would face possible child welfare investigations only if they were arrested at protests and their children were going to be left alone or if they knowingly allowed their children to violate the federal security zones or otherwise break the law.
Koller said some parents may not know their children are protesting and likely would not be investigated if their children were arrested. But she said "it's very different than if the parents know about it, encourage it and physically assist the child in putting the child in front of a moving ship or catamaran."
Koller said legal protesters would not be investigated.
"If parents are abiding by the safety zone, if they are expressing themselves legally in the safety zone, there would absolutely be no investigation," she said.
The department has been working to provide more transparency in child welfare investigations, providing the targets and their families with letters and booklets outlining the process, legal rights, and the potential consequences. Koller acknowledged that in the past there was often mystery and fear surrounding the investigations.
Koller said the warning to protesters was an extension of transparency.
"It is important for people to know that there are these responsibilities that they have as parents and that we have as a state agency in charge of child protective services to make sure children are not unnecessarily subjected to harm," Koller said.
'AN UNEASY FEELING'
State Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, D-13th (Kalihi, Nu'uanu), who supports the Superferry, said parents should not put their children into harm's way during protests or break the law themselves. But she said she would not have threatened parents with child welfare investigations.
"When I first heard about that I had an uneasy feeling," Chun Oakland said. "I wouldn't threaten, period."
State Senate Majority Leader Gary Hooser, D-7th (Kaua'i, Ni'ihau), called the prospect of child welfare investigations "unnecessarily heavy-handed."
"To use the threat of such action to enforce a political decision is just wrong," Hooser said.
State Senate Minority Leader Fred Hemmings, R-25th (Kailua, Waimanalo, Hawai'i Kai), said he believes that although protesters represent a minority view on the Superferry they helped bring the project "to a screeching halt" with their actions.
"People who do protest illegally have to be subject to the laws of the state of Hawai'i, including child endangerment. To say otherwise is wrong," Hemmings said.
Reach Derrick DePledge at email@example.com.