New doc­u­ments fur­ther il­lu­mi­nate state sys­tem that failed abused boy

Zion McKe­own died af­ter 4 years of abuse de­spite many red flags

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - FRONT PAGE - By Rob Perez rperez@starad­ver­

The state re­moved a 4-month-old in­fant from his par­ents’ cus­tody af­ter he was abused so se­verely he al­most died. Doc­tors es­ti­mated his rib frac­tures were as much as two weeks old.

The Depart­ment of Hu­man Ser­vices, which in­ves­ti­gates child abuse cases, iden­ti­fied Zion McKe­own’s par­ents in in­ter­nal doc­u­ments as the pri­mary sus­pects in the 2008 case, ac­cord­ing to records re­cently ob­tained by the Honolulu Star-Ad­ver­tiser. The cou­ple de­nied re­spon­si­bil­ity and were not charged, and the case was clas­si­fied as one in­volv­ing an uniden­ti­fied per­pe­tra­tor.

De­spite the state’s sus­pi­cions and other red flags, in­clud­ing the par­ents’ his­tory of fam­ily vi­o­lence, the mother’s loss of her parental rights to a daugh­ter and the fa­ther’s crim­i­nal record of as­sault and abuse, DHS even­tu­ally re­u­nited Zion with his mother — the cou­ple were sep­a­rated by then — and im­posed no con­di­tions on the fa­ther’s vis­its with his son.

Be­fore the Fam­ily Court ap­proved re­uni­fi­ca­tion, the par­ents un­der­went coun­sel­ing and other ser­vices, but even that was prob­lem­atic. The two were largely non­com­pli­ant with the court or­ders and ser­vices associated with their son’s case, ac­cord­ing to

tes­ti­mony the state at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice sub­mit­ted to the Leg­is­la­ture this year. Zion was re­turned to his mother with­out an as­sess­ment done by a team of out­side ex­perts — a step re­quired un­der DHS rules in se­ri­ous abuse cases, ac­cord­ing to the doc­u­ments. “It’s a sig­nif­i­cant omis­sion,” said Richard Gelles, for­mer dean of the School of So­cial Pol­icy at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia. Three years later, Zion, then 4, was dead, the vic­tim of abuse so se­vere that a doc­tor said the in­juries were con­sis­tent with some­one hit­ting a con­crete wall at 65 mph.

Kyle McKe­own, Zion’s fa­ther, and Grace Lee-Nakamoto, McKe­own’s girl­friend, were charged with sec­ond-de­gree mur­der and are await­ing trial on Maui.

New rev­e­la­tions

The Star-Ad­ver­tiser and other Hawaii me­dia have re­ported on Zion’s case. But the doc­u­ments re­cently ob­tained by the news­pa­per pro­vide new, pre­vi­ously undis­closed de­tails that cast a harsher spot­light on the state’s han­dling of the case. The records raise ques­tions about whether DHS was so fo­cused on re­uni­fy­ing Zion that the red flags weren’t suf­fi­ciently heeded and that the agency was too quick to end over­sight. On a broader level, the doc­u­ments pro­vide an un­usual glimpse into the machi­na­tions of a process that nor­mally is shielded from the pub­lic by con­fi­den­tial­ity rules de­signed to pro­tect the in­ter­ests of abused chil­dren.

“This kid is lit­er­ally the poster child for a sys­tem that doesn’t work,” said at­tor­ney Carl Varady, who rep­re­sented Zion’s es­tate and fam­ily mem­bers in a neg­li­gence law­suit against DHS that was set­tled for $875,000 this year.

Even Zion’s guardian ad litem, a court-ap­pointed at­tor­ney whose job was to pro­tect the boy’s in­ter­ests, ques­tioned the depart­ment’s ac­tions when it ended over­sight of the mother, An­gelique Rooney, by clos­ing the child wel­fare case in­volv­ing her daugh­ter just days af­ter Zion’s birth. “Given the sit­u­a­tion re­gard­ing mother’s his­tory and eval­u­a­tion, DHS had no busi­ness clos­ing the case and putting Zion at risk,” Mal­colm Hong wrote in a Jan­uary 2009 re­port to the court. “Per­haps his in­juries could have been avoided had DHS re­mained on the case.”

A mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary team of ex­perts, who ex­am­ined Zion’s case af­ter his death, noted that a team re­view wasn’t done be­fore re­uni­fi­ca­tion — re­quired un­der DHS pol­icy — and that the depart­ment pro­vided only “min­i­mal” post-re­uni­fi­ca­tion su­per­vi­sion of three months in a case in­volv­ing a child se­ri­ously harmed by an uniden­ti­fied per­pe­tra­tor. Such uniden­ti­fied “perp” cases, as they are called, need ex­tra scru­tiny, ex­perts say, given that the abuser re­mains un­known and the child, who typ­i­cally is too young or other­wise un­able to say who the abuser was, is at risk of more harm.

In the wake of Zion’s case, DHS in 2014 es­tab­lished a spe­cial unit that in­ves­ti­gates all in­stances in which a child is se­ri­ously harmed by an un­known per­pe­tra­tor. DHS of­fi­cials said they pro­vided ad­e­quate over­sight in Zion’s case and stressed that the rec­om­men­da­tions to re­unify him and end post-re­uni­fi­ca­tion su­per­vi­sion were sup­ported by the child’s guardian ad litem and the par­ents’ at­tor­ney and ul­ti­mately were ap­proved by the court. They also de­fended their pur­suit of re­uni­fi­ca­tion, rather than ter­mi­na­tion of parental rights, em­pha­siz­ing that there were no ag­gra­vat­ing cir­cum­stances to jus­tify ter­mi­na­tion, they were pro­vid­ing ser­vices to the par­ents to ad­dress safety con­cerns, and the par­ents, as in other cases, were reg­u­larly mon­i­tored for be­hav­ioral changes.

“If they’re not mak­ing progress, at any point we can file for ter­mi­na­tion,” said Cyn­thia Goss, as­sis­tant ad­min­is­tra­tor of the depart­ment’s Child Wel­fare Ser­vices branch, in an in­ter­view. Kayle Perez, the ad­min­is­tra­tor, said DHS’ role is to pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties for fam­i­lies to heal and de­velop skills to help with re­uni­fi­ca­tion. Asked about gen­eral crit­i­cisms of DHS’ over­sight ef­forts, Goss re­ferred to what hap­pens in most child wel­fare cases. “I be­lieve the out­comes speak to that,” she said. “Chil­dren go home and are safe at home.”

DHS faulted

Over the past sev­eral years, the rate of abused Hawaii chil­dren suf­fer­ing re­abuse within six months has re­mained sub­stan­tially be­low the na­tional stan­dard of 6.1 per­cent and gen­er­ally has been de­clin­ing since at least 2009, ac­cord­ing to data pro­vided by DHS. In the four quar­ters of fis­cal year 2017, Hawaii’s rate never topped 0.5 per­cent, the data show. Crit­ics of DHS, how­ever, point to Zion’s case to ques­tion how the depart­ment ex­er­cises its over­sight. They say a case in which a child is se­ri­ously harmed and the par­ents are pri­mary sus­pects de­mands ex­tra scru­tiny, es­pe­cially if re­uni­fi­ca­tion is pur­sued. Zion’s par­ents were pri­mary sus­pects be­cause they were un­able to ad­e­quately ex­plain Zion’s 2008 in­juries, ac­cord­ing to the case doc­u­ments.

Heidi Sta­ples, di­rec­tor of the UCLA Cen­ter on Child Wel­fare, was re­tained by Varady to eval­u­ate the case. She said red flags were abun­dant yet were given in­suf­fi­cient weight by DHS, which Sta­ples faulted for pur­su­ing re­uni­fi­ca­tion given the egre­gious cir­cum­stances and for not fol­low­ing its own poli­cies.

She said nei­ther of Zion’s par­ents demon­strated sub­stan­tial re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion or the ca­pac­ity to safely care for him.

Zion was re­u­nited with his mother on Oahu in Septem­ber 2009, and more than a year later she turned him over to his fa­ther, who had moved to Maui. A se­verely in­jured Zion was brought to Maui Me­mo­rial Med­i­cal Cen­ter in May 2012 and died a day later.

“This is the worst of the worst, the high­est risk and most se­vere type of abuse, the youngest and most vul­ner­a­ble of vic­tims, the type of case that haunts com­mu­ni­ties and so­cial work­ers and courts and ad­vo­cates and any­one who cares about keep­ing chil­dren safe,” Sta­ples wrote in her anal­y­sis. “It bog­gles the mind that this child who mirac­u­lously sur­vived the first as­sault was then sub­jected to a re­turn to the same un­safe and dan­ger­ous care­givers.”

Gelles, the for­mer dean, said in a phone in­ter­view that Zion’s case un­der­scores a prob­lem with child wel­fare agen­cies through­out the coun­try. They pay more at­ten­tion to the rights of the par­ents than what is best for the child, he said.

“I think these agen­cies have a com­pletely un­re­al­is­tic no­tion of the ca­pac­ity of peo­ple who mal­treat chil­dren to change over a pre­scribed amount of time,” he said. “It’s il­lus­trated time and time again, not just in the is­lands.”

Gelles said DHS’ fail­ure to seek rec­om­men­da­tions from an out­side mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary team be­fore re­turn­ing Zion to his mother was a sig­nif­i­cant mis­step be­cause such re­views pro­vide im­por­tant feed­back.

Asked why no re­view was done, DHS was un­able to cite a rea­son.

“The multi-dis­ci­plinary team is a valu­able re­source in our re­uni­fi­ca­tion process where se­ri­ous harm to the child had pre­vi­ously oc­curred,” spokes­woman Keopu Reelitz said in an email to the Star-Ad­ver­tiser. “Hav­ing them re­view cases be­fore re­uni­fi­ca­tion is our stan­dard prac­tice. We will con­tinue to look into what oc­curred in this sit­u­a­tion.” By the time Rooney was re­uni­fied with her son, her be­hav­ior and at­ti­tude had im­proved, ac­cord­ing to the reports made to the court. “Mother has made a com­mend­able turn­around in this case,” Hong, Zion’s guardian ad litem, wrote in a De­cem­ber 2009 re­port. “Ini­tially, she was not as co­op­er­a­tive and com­pli­ant, but she has made a re­mark­able ad­just­ment in her ap­proach to others and fo­cused on Zion and her­self.”

Rooney could not be reached for com­ment.

A few months af­ter Hong wrote that re­port and be­fore Zion was moved to Maui, DHS re­ceived an anony­mous call say­ing that the mother was abus­ing her son, the records show. DHS called the mother to of­fer ser­vices, ac­cord­ing to the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s leg­isla­tive tes­ti­mony, but “no fur­ther fol­low-up was taken.”

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