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Native Hawaiian father's six children spent years in foster care before he changed his ways and got them back

Fellowship Story Showcase

Native Hawaiian father's six children spent years in foster care before he changed his ways and got them back

Picture of Rob Perez

Rob Perez reported this project with the support of the Fund for Journalism on Child Well-Being and the National Health Journalism Fellowship. Both are programs of the Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalism.

Other stories in the series include:

Hawaiins at risk: Keiki locked in cycle of foster care system

Hawaiins at risk: Healing efforts return to roots 

Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Sunday, January 10, 2016

WAILUKU >> The odds of Simeon U‘u reuniting with his children looked slim in October 2009.

The Native Hawaiian father was just beginning another prison term, this time for a probation violation.

His lengthy criminal record dated to 1990 and included convictions for forgery, theft and domestic violence.

He also had a history of substance abuse and homelessness, plus a stormy relationship with his wife.

And the couple were no strangers to child welfare authorities, who had removed the U‘u children several times since the 1990s because of safety concerns. The last time was several months before U‘u’s incarceration in 2009.

At his lowest point in prison, U‘u, a broad-shouldered man with tattoos down one arm and a thick silver chain around his neck, doubted he would get his children back. “I felt like I was a bad parent, that I abandoned them.”

But he said he was determined to change that.

While in prison, U‘u maintained regular contact with his children and participated in parenting, drug abuse and anger management programs to better his chances of reuniting his family.

“That was part of the motivation that kept me alive,” the 45-year-old tour bus driver said during a recent interview at his home here, surrounded by his six children. “You know, that fire in me to believe that my kids, I still got a chance to get them back.”

U‘u did get them back. Within six months of his 2011 prison release, the family was reunited — except for the mother, who remains behind bars. U‘u and his children, who range in age from 13 to 24, are still together today.

“I’m sitting here four years later and I still have my kids, so I must be doing something right,” U‘u said, adding that he has remained sober since 2009. “It was a long journey.”

Honored for efforts

A parenting class based on Hawaiian cultural values helped him focus on his children, U‘u said.

While U‘u spoke, laughter filled the small living room of his rented home. His children were joking about school, dating and who got first dibs at a newly opened container of ice cream.

In one sense U‘u has defied the odds — and not just because of his troubles with the law or his checkered domestic history.

Over the past five fiscal years, only 58 percent of Hawaiian children in foster care have been reunited with their families, according to Department of Human Services data. For non-Hawaiians the reunification rate was 71 percent.

U‘u’s success did not go unnoticed.

The family and the team that helped them were honored in June 2013 on Maui as part of National Reunification Month.

“He did everything he could to get his kids back,” said Elladine Olevao, Maui administrator for Child Welfare Services, the arm of DHS that oversees the foster system. “And once he got them back, they thrived.”

When DHS was considering reunification, several factors favored U‘u. He had landed the tour bus job, secured housing, followed his DHS service plan, which included the prison classes, and maintained regular contact with his children, even while incarcerated.

But DHS also had to consider that U‘u had been reunified with his children before, only to have them taken away again. The agency this time, though, detected something different. U‘u seemed more committed to making reunification work, according to Olevao.

“There was something about him this last round that you could tell it was worth putting as much energy as possible to get his six kids back with him,” Olevao said, crediting his DHS case manager, Christina “Satyo” Dosland, for playing a key role.

Overcoming turmoil

U‘u’s determination to regain custody of his children and provide a stable home stemmed in part from his desire to stop making the same mistakes as his father, who had a drinking problem and fought often with his wife. As a child, U‘u sometimes intervened to break up the altercations.

“I promised myself that I would never be my father’s son,” he said.

The parental fights stopped when U‘u was 13. One day he found his mother collapsed in a bathroom, dead from a heart attack. At 15 he learned that his father, a construction worker, was fatally shot while drinking with a buddy after work at a Kakaako job site.

Tired of his own domestic turmoil, U‘u said he stopped doing drugs prior to his most recent incarceration. He remembers the October date — the same one as a daughter’s birthday and his father’s murder. At the time, he decided his top priority had to be his children. The guilt of being a neglectful parent had become too great, and U‘u said he didn’t want his sons and daughters to be raised in foster homes.

In some ways the experience of the U‘u children underscored disparities for many Hawaiians in foster care.

The U‘u children re-entered the system multiple times, which was in line with research several years ago that found Hawaiians were more likely to re-enter foster care than non-Hawaiians.

During U‘u’s most recent experience, they remained in foster care for about two years. That was more than the nearly 19 months that Hawaiians on average stayed in foster care over the past five fiscal years, according to DHS data. And the two years easily topped the 17-month average for non-Hawaiians.

Mirroring another poor outcome for Hawaiians, two of the children aged out of the system — turned 18 before being reunified or permanently placed with a family. That’s an outcome the agency tries to prevent. Yet Hawaiians in each of the past five years have aged out at a greater rate than non-Hawaiians.

One of the six children also had dealings with the juvenile justice system, where Hawaiians also are overrepresented.

For the U‘u children, talking about foster care still resurrects painful memories.

Several recalled being angry at their parents for breaking up the family.

Some voiced feelings of guilt, wondering whether their behavior contributed to what happened.

“You think, maybe if you clean up your room or put all the toys away, maybe it might help,” Salena U‘u, 18, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “But it wasn’t any of that. It was something bigger.”

Sean U‘u, who is the oldest of the siblings, said he realizes that his father made poor choices in the past. “But everybody makes mistakes. You learn from them.”

When the younger U‘u was asked about his father’s successful resolve to reunify the family, he started to respond, paused, then dabbed away tears.

“It’s one of the best things ever,” Sean U‘u said. “I can say right now my dad has changed a lot. He’s changed so much. …”

Overcome with emotion, the young man was unable to finish his answer.

[This story was originally published by Honolulu Star-Advertiser.]