June 01, 2013

Hawaiian Father and Caseworkers Team Up to Achieve Reunification

Rexanah Wyse and Scott Trowbridge

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

June is National Reunification Month, a time to celebrate those who work to reunify families involved with the child welfare system. Many individuals are“reunification heroes.” Highlighted here are a father and his caseworker from Hawaii. Together they pursued the father’s permanency goal of reunification. 

The journey of Mr. U’U and his caseworker, Christina Satyo Dosland shows how positive change can happen when people focus on a goal and don’t give up. After two years in prison, Mr. U’U achieved his goal and obtained custody of his six children.

Mr. U’U’s turning point occurred in prison when he learned the court would terminate his parental rights if he spent more than two years incarcerated. Despite the looming deadline he never lost faith. He continued to meet the requirements of his rehabilitation programs and to support his children the best he could.

Ms. Dosland and a team of supporters helped Mr. U’U achieve success. Together they worked to reunite the U’U family. Ms. Dosland is widely recognized as a passionate advocate for birth families.

Mr. U’U

What activities do you enjoy with your children?

Going to the beach and the pool, and playing ball in the park. Whatever activities the children enjoy doing also are my favorites. Each child is unique in their own way. Although they can be a “handful,” they are handfuls I am happy to have.

What is one memorable moment related to getting custody of your children?

During incarceration I could not visit with them. I will never forget how their faces lit up when they saw me outside the prison walls. (Following his release, Mr. U’U was granted ‘Ohana/Family Time every Wednesday for three hours.)

What did you struggle with most in getting your children back?

Initially I could not acknowledge that I had problems. I could not accept what I needed to do to reunify with my children. (Mr. U’U came to understand that Child Welfare Services was there to help him and his family.)

What was the worst part about being separated from your kids?

Not knowing if I would succeed in getting them back.

What good came from the experience?

I might not have overcome my addictions if I had not gone through the sobering experiences of incarceration and losing my kids to foster care. Those events put my life into perspective and woke me to what I needed to do to curtail future negative events.

Who else was important in helping you get your children back?

Apart from caseworker Satyo Dosland and her team, my children motivated me. They wrote me to ask when I was getting out of prison.

Were there services you did not have that you would have found helpful?

All the services I received in prison were helpful. They offered many programs including Alcoholics Anonymous and tutoring programs. I had the opportunity to tutor other inmates through the prison education department. This helped my motivation.

What would you want others to know about your experience?

The pressure was all on me. I couldn’t fail. I want other single parents to know that we can make positive changes. Take time to think before making bad choices. I let the kids help me decide what to do. If we make a bad decision, we make it together. Whatever services are offered to you, take advantage of them. Agencies, Goodwill, foundations, and churches are also available to help. Keep the faith and stay strong for yourself. Always believe you can get your kids back.

What advice do you have for other fathers like you? 

More single fathers should speak publicly about trying to get custody of their children. It is not shameful to discuss your experience. It is a learning process for everyone.

Ms. Christina Satyo Dosland, Case Manager

Christina Satyo Dosland has been working as a Department of Human Services Child Welfare Service (CWS) case manager for 16 years. She arrived at DHS with a bachelor’s degree in human development and adjustment and experience in special education. Ms. Dosland was not looking for a career in child welfare, but she discovered a love for the work. 

What are some strengths of the child welfare system in your area?

Strengths include working as a community, and supporting and teaching each other. The island of Maui is small enough that CWS staff knows the judges, lawyers, and police. We have good working relationships with them.

What are some weaknesses of Hawaii’s child welfare system?

Weaknesses in Hawai’i reflect national concerns. Child welfare systems across the country are underfunded and case managers work long hours under stressful conditions. It is rewarding work, but it’s not easy.

You’re known as “very passionate and an advocate of supporting birth families.” True?

I am passionate and love the families I work with. Children generally prefer to stay with and remain connected with their birth families. I trusted my intuition on the first phone call with Mr. U’U when he was in prison. At that point he was four months away from permanently losing his kids to foster care. Mr. U’U was ready to take over and become a parent.

How can incarcerated parents increase the likelihood of reunification? 

Working with the prison social worker to access services often proves successful. Maui has some challenges providing services. In Mr. U’U’s case, I was pleasantly surprised that he had already completed an anger management program. The Oahu prison social worker also provided critical services that supported Mr. U’U.

What programs/practices helped Mr. U’U reunify with his children?

There were several, but the most notable was providing a parenting coach. Mr. U’U was never the primary caretaker for his six children so he needed guidance. The Oahu prison social worker also helped Mr. U’U meet his goals. With the coaching and other services, he was on track with his service plan upon release from prison. I supported Mr. U’U’s regular communication with DHS because it built my confidence in the family and helped defend Mr. U’U’s position in court. He was becoming a better parent.

What advice would you give someone considering a career in child welfare?

When working with parents, look for the ‘hook’ in a parent that you can grab on to and align with them. If you are on the opposite side of the fence, the parents never trust you, you don’t help them, and they don’t progress. In the best situations, parents go through a stage of disliking the case manager before they start working their programs. Learn to not take their behavior personally. 

Case managers should take care of themselves, eat and sleep well, take vitamins and exercise to stay on top of the daily stresses that are part of this job. It takes a special person to successfully work in the child welfare system. If you really like working with people, this job is fascinating, enriching, and rewarding. Child welfare is never boring. Even if you only stay for a few years, you will learn a tremendous amount about family dynamics, community resources and community problems. You will be well prepared for any other job working with people.

What advice would you give judges, agency directors, and elected leaders on improving the system?

The child welfare system would benefit from increased funding and reduced caseloads. Early and deeper intervention would promote more meaningful change. I also suggest that mandating the drug court system for all first time child welfare clients with drug problems could improve future outcomes. The Drug Court program is excellent, but it’s not large enough to service the number of clients assigned to the child welfare system.

Do you think there are public misconceptions about the child welfare system?

Our intent is to support families in trouble. For families not ready to change, one misconception is that when CWS opens a suspected abuse or neglect case, the state removes the child from the home. This is not always the result. In fact, it’s my job to do everything possible to keep the children safely in their birth family’s home. Before the intervention or casework ends, most parents begin to appreciate the programs offered to support their families.

How do you define successful permanency?

I don’t feel like I have “won” a case unless the family reunifies. I try to make reunification possible by thinking of creative ideas that inspire parents to take an active interest in their children’s lives, and ultimately reunify with them. When reunification is not possible, the second best “win” is to find a permanent placement with relatives/`Ohana, or with someone that the child will enjoy and maintain ‘Ohana connections. The child should be nurtured and loved as part of the family, not just housed until they are 18.

Rexanah Wyse, JD Candidate 2013, and Scott Trowbridge, JD, ABA Center on Children and the Law, Washington, DC, conducted this interview.