High court ruling is victory for victims of child abuse in Hawaii

The state Supreme Court has upheld an award to be paid by the state to a Maui girl whose previous injury was under investigation by Child Protective Services.

Child Protective Services has been told by the state Supreme Court that it is responsible for the welfare of children subject to abuse. A $1.1 million judgment was upheld last month by the high court and will hold the agency accountable for future negligence.

The state should increase expenditures for the agency rather than be forced to pay court awards.

The case arose from “very critical” injuries, including broken bones, a torn intestine, severe bruises and bleeding inside the skull, suffered by a 21/2-year-old Maui girl seven years ago, two months after being brought to Maui Memorial Medical Center with a broken leg. Dasia Morales-Kahoohanohano was under the care of her mother, Denise Morales, when the injuries occurred.

A pediatrician at the hospital had told CPS social worker Ellen Brewerton after the first injury that he did not believe her mother harmed the girl and that “the only logical explanation was Denise’s boyfriend (did).” Morales was arrested but neither she nor her then-boyfriend, Darryl Ramos, was prosecuted.

The social worker allowed the weekly exchange in custody between Morales and Dasia’s father, Jarrett Kahoohanohano, to resume on the condition that Dasia not be brought to Ramos’ house. Maui police had informed CPS that Ramos had been convicted of crimes seven times, including household abuse for punching a former girlfriend and biting her nose.

Brewerton went on a two-week vacation five weeks after the broken-leg incident and three days after Ramos and a friend were arrested following a shooting on the Ramos property, but the case was not assigned to another social worker during that fortnight. Dasia’s severe injuries occurred at the Ramos house a week after Brewerton returned to work.

Lillian Koller, director of the Human Services Department, called the Supreme Court’s decision “unfair to Hawaii taxpayers” and “exasperating for our social workers, whose conduct may be condemned no matter what they do.” Vlad Devens, attorney for Dasia, her father and paternal grandfather, suggested the injuries could have been prevented if the CPS had adhered to its own policies.

The court’s unanimous landmark decision does not mean that any injury to a child under CPS’s oversight will end up in court. It does mean that any departure from policy leading to injury can be grounds for a lawsuit.

As Circuit Judge Joel E. August ruled in the case, and the Supreme Court agreed, “DHS’s duty to protect children exists once they are on notice that a significant and unjustifiable or unexplained injury has occurred to a child that is brought to their attention, and there is a reasonable opportunity to verify the injury or the potential risk of future harm.”


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