Updated: Dec 8, 2021
When a child goes missing people come together. Race, religion, politics, socio-economic status disappear, and all hearts go out to the worried family. We fear for the lost child, we collectively hold our breath until she comes safely home. Here in Hawai’i our aloha sprit shows up, we gather in search parties, we share on Facebook. Today, Isabella is our shared concern.
While damaged, sick people inhabit all communities, here in Hawaii we enjoy a sense of community that works in our favor. There are fewer child abductions by strangers, fewer places to hide, and more awareness of who is who, and less anonymity. We tend to know who’s doing OK, who needs help or, in some cases, who should not allowed to raise a child.
As hours turn into days, we struggle to hold out hope for a happy ending for Isabella. Statistics tell us that the first 48 hours are the most important in these cases. We also know that nationally, an overwhelmingly disproportionate number of missing child cases involve foster children.
I’ve worked in adoption and foster care for more than 30 years. I’ve signed off on hundreds of social service reports for families adopting from foster care through our own Department of Human Services (DHS). I’ve trained families as they prepare to take in and love (foster) children. I’ve seen first-hand the sorrow of birth parents saddled with epigenetic trauma, trying to get better so they can reunite with their children. I’ve known foster parents who want to honor the birth family, and yet fear for their (foster) child if and when they are returned to previously unsafe home.
Regardless of the outcome -- and of course I wish her to be found, having merely wandered off with a bag full of snacks to some safe corner --- the case of Isabella reminds us of these key points:
Family-dynamics and inter-generational disease are real issues that require more social and economic attention. Cycles of violence, addiction, and economic hardship exist and get harder to break with each generation. Our prisons are filled with adults who suffered as children. Our child welfare services are filled with children whose parents suffered as children. Rather than blaming the victims, and yes, they are victims of misfortune or systemic bias, we need evidence-based, rigorously monitored, community-based programs. This is not rocket science. We know what is needed. The real issue is that we don’t believe in prevention, and we are not willing to put money into protecting the less powerful among us.
So while I applaud the outpouring of community love for dear, sweet Isabella, I hope her story reminds us that we need to do more. System-wide child welfare reform is needed.
Note: A version of this essay was published in the Honolulu Star Advertiser in November 2021. Sadly, Ariel Isabella Kalua's case is no longer a missing person case, and
her (adoptive) parents have been charged with murder.