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Hawaii no paradise to escape domestic violence

The dark side of paradise
The dark side of paradise

The Polar Vortex that descended upon the mainland this week has affected everyone (either directly or indirectly) and probably has people longing for our tropical paradise more then usual right about now. Arctic air or not, one group of people who consistently express a desire to come to Hawaii are domestic violence victim-survivors (and it’s not for our beautiful weather).

With the exception of our sister-state, Alaska, Hawaii is about as far away from the mainland United States as you can get and THAT is what the real draw is for those seeking to escape lives and histories of domestic violence.

Throughout the years, I’ve spoken to countless victim-survivors who ask me about the possibility and realities of relocating to Hawaii with their children. Basing most of their knowledge on what they’ve seen on the Internet or on TV, Hawaii does look like a perfect escape and the perfect place to restart traumatized lives over in - but nothing could be further from the truth…

Hawaii’s history is similar to the fate and history of the American Indians - rooted in betrayal, hostile takeover, destruction and disease. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans in the mid-1700s, Hawaii probably was the closest thing to a Heaven on earth yet by 1866, the first native Hawaiians were exiled to Kalaupapa for leprosy – a disease introduced by visitors. History shows that things only rapidly declined from thereon in: by 1887 King Kalakaua’s authority was diminished after he was forced under threat of violence to sign something that came to be called the “Bayonet Constitution”; in 1893 the last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Liliʻuokalani, was betrayed and overthrown by a provisional government that heralded Hawaii’s annexation to statehood by 1959.

Today, many those who are of native Hawaiian ancestry live in poverty – they are not landowners (or homeowners for that matter either) and too many are homeless on land that should have been their birthright. This isn’t exactly “ancient history” and it’s a history that remains alive since no meaningful act of ho`oponopono (to make right/reconciliation) has ever occurred so in terms of relocating to Hawaii, the adjustment is more than a physical one - there’s a cultural adjustment to make as well (that may not be as warm and as inviting as portrayed on tourism brochures). Then there’s our local family court system…

Each island in the Hawaiian Island chain is unique unto itself but since all islands are united as a state, that should mean that everyone’s on the same page across the board, right? Wrong. Although Hawaii has some of the best legislation in the United States to protect victim-survivors of domestic violence, none of it’s worth anything when it’s not enforced.

Perhaps even worse is that some of the professionals who should know the law don’t, even though the statutes are supposed to guide their decisions. Case-in-point: I once had a Custody Evaluator reply, “What’s that?” when I asked her if she had considered HRS 571-46(9) before recommending full physical and legal custody of four little kids to an abuser. Bad enough the abusers violate the law, but the people who are supposed to enforce and uphold it are going to violate the law too?

Another case-in-point: former Maui family court judge, Mimi DeJardins, who pleaded No Contest to tampering with government records, making false entries in ten cases involving police and court documents last spring. Want to know how much jail time she was sentenced to? Zip – community service instead. As a judge who knows the law, don’t you think she should’ve been held to a higher standard for what she did?

Then again, why hold anyone accountable for anything when you can settle your case? Actually, settling isn’t a choice in a range of legal options; no, here in Hawaii “Every court hearing is a settlement opportunity” (quote from a family court judge during a community meeting – music to an abuser’s ears…). I guess settling a family court case is preferable to a court decision because it’s more friendly, less contentious and less adversarial; if no crimes were involved this might be a good way of dispute resolution - but last I checked domestic violence was still against the law (so it's still a crime).

A reason why judges don’t like dealing with family court cases involving domestic violence is because right from the get-go, they’re faced with a dilemma: HOW do you apply fairness, balance and equity to a situation where it’s always been unbalanced, unequal and unfair to one of the parties? One Hawaii attorney offered the following solution: “What you do is litigate the abuse away until you get to a fair and equitable standard” – sure makes life easier to live for the judges, more lucrative for the attorneys and more pleasant for the abusers – just that much worse for the DV survivor moms and their children.

I once asked a judge about the volume of DV-related cases in Hawaii's family court and he smiled telling me he rarely saw any. Considering the amount of moms I work with, I didn’t know how he reached that conclusion but then he offered that “those cases” are “handled elsewhere”. Elsewhere? Where else are they going to go when DV survivors have children in-common with their abusers? The judge was under the impression that a TRO handled it, CPS got the case or the issue had already been addressed and “taken care of” – as if DV simply stopped the minute the victim left!

While Hawaii looks like a paradise from afar, domestic violence victim-survivors and their children will find no justice, rest or reprieve here – as a matter-of-fact one of the most familiar patterns I see here is that once the abuser has been given custody of the children, he moves away from Hawaii (most of the time without informing the court or getting the court’s permission) and that’s the end of it (because by that time the survivor mom is emotionally devastated, financially broke and more isolated and alone then she thought was possible).

In the cases where the abuser follows his victim to Hawaii, the court will take a friendly “from this day forward” approach and provide the abuser with EVERY opportunity to have an active, ongoing and meaningful relationship with his children. Complain or report subsequent abuse and the survivor just might find herself childless.

Hawaii truly is a wonderful place to escape to for vacation but it’s NOT the place to be to escape from abuse.

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