It’s been just over five years since toddler Cyrus Belt was thrown to his death from an H-1 freeway overpass. After that day many promised sweeping changes to ensure child safety, but so far there’s little action. A recent civil lawsuit settlement prompted our look back, and we’ve uncovered a string of unfulfilled promises that has some wondering if kids are any safer now.
January 17, 2008, Matthew Higa carries little Cyrus Belt to the Miller Street pedestrian overpass and drops him into moving traffic. What followed were revelations of neglect that day and in the past, the mother’s drug use, and details of what Child Welfare Services did and didn’t do. Also, community wide outrage, sorrow and a call for something to change.
"Not one person I’ve ever talked to was not deeply touched by this," said Charles Crumpton, attorney for plaintiff David Belt in a civil lawsuit just settled. "I think that’s the point, it’s a child, they’re helpless, if we don’t step up for them, who will?"
David Belt is Cyrus’ biological father. He was incarcerated at the time of the murder. He sued, along with Cyrus’ aunt, to hold the convicted killer, the state, and Cyrus’ mother liable.
The mother — Nancy Asiata Chanco — was dropped from the suit early on, and she has since moved to the mainland. The aunt stepped away from the suit.
A settlement has been finalized between Higa, the state, and Cyrus’ father, who now has other children of his own. Specifics of the Higa portion of the settlement remain confidential but are said to be in the low six figures.
"David Belt sees this as a second chance to be the kind of father that Cyrus would have deserved and needed," Crumpton said. "What is the purpose of his life, what is the purpose of the settlement and anything that might come from it at any point in time? It’s to be the best father he can."
As to questions of the state’s liability, plaintiffs point out that 6 days before Cyrus’ death, The Queen’s Medical Center notified DHS that Cyrus’ mother was on crystal meth. DHS didn’t consider the episode to warrant removal of the child, though Cyrus had been taken away from her in the past. Follow-up was referred to a subcontractor. The state has paid $10,000, according to the Attorney General’s office to avoid further litigation, and admits no fault.
"It’s not what’s there, it’s what’s missing," Crumpton said, "and what’s missing is what we sought from the beginning."
Specifically — to allow case workers more leeway to remove a child if even temporarily from a potentially dangerous situation, despite risks like people suing for having their kids taken away.
"If they classified as ‘high risk,’ the likelihood of intervention for the protection of the child — as had happened a year and a half before for the same child — would have been much greater," Crumpton said.
The state stands by its conduct in the Cyrus Belt case, saying they followed state and federal guidelines.
"Following the death of any child under care of the Department of Human Services (DHS) Child Welfare Services Division, the DHS and its legal counsel conduct internal reviews into practices and procedures," the department said in a statement. "Internal reviews following the tragic death of Cyrus Belt determined that DHS acted in accordance with child welfare policies and procedures, complied with state law, and conformed with the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act."
The plaintiffs say there was openness early on in the talks to include systemic changes in the settlement dialog.
"Initially, the response was quite favorable and encouraging, and we expected that was going to have a pretty decent chance to be made a part of the outcome of this case," Crumpton said, "if not part of the settlement itself, at least part of an understanding and agreement that would enable some of the very diligent, dedicated, responsible people with CPS to be able to take the action they believe would be in the best interest of protecting endangered children, and not to defer to either administrative or other deterrents or delays."
"If early on in these settlement talks it was hopeful, what changed?" KHON2 asked.
"The people involved and their attitude toward having that be an item on the table," Crumpton said.
That’s not the only change.
KHON2 found many pledges and promises undone, incomplete or abandoned in the months and years since Cyrus was murdered:
* A bill introduced the day after Cyrus was killed called for a child fatality and neglect task force, response within 24 hours in drug allegations, and more leeway to remove children from questionable settings. The measure died in committee that spring.
* DHS in 2008 touted what they called an unprecedented change in communication with police, including making state neglect and abuse records available to officers on the street. According to police today, "Our procedures have not changed," HPD said in a statement, adding: "If an officer believes that a child may be endangered, the child will be taken into protective custody and CPS is notified."
* An audit of Child Welfare Services was called for by the legislature and was due to lawmakers more than two years ago. But it is nowhere to be seen. When KHON2 pressed the auditor’s office for more details about why, they only would refer to it as "pending."
"Is that good enough for you?" KHON2 asked the lawmaker who introduced the resolution that asked for the audit.
"No," Rep. Ryan Yamane responded. "Whenever we make a request to look into something systemic, we always want it completed."
Yamane said he called the auditor’s office after we inquired about why it was missing, and the auditor’s office told him they began an inquiry but were told by DHS that due to federal oversight already in place, not much needed to or could be changed.
But the lawmaker says that doesn’t explain the cycle of problems and challenges that plague youth and family services and courts.
"We see certain factors always popping up, the lack of services, always looking for funding, whose responsible, whose the guardian, whose in the best interest of the child," Yamane said. "There are multiple issues impacting this situation, it was the courts, the interpretation of the law, as well as the individual parties involved, so we want to make sure this situation, or any situation, never puts any child in harm’s way again."
Whether a change in any one of those factors would have saved Cyrus, or stopped Higa from his addictions and from hurting someone else, may never be known.
"I don’t think anybody intentionally did not do their job. No one would have planned to have a monster like this step out," Yamane said. "I cannot say it’s a failure of any one part or if it’s a failure of the system."
But realizing the scope of inaction over 5 years has people at least asking again, and following up on significant loose-ends left undone.
"By you guys questioning what’s going on and how we move forward, I think the auditor will come up with a report and recommendation," Yamane said. "As a community, where do we focus our priority on? Is it substance abuse? Is it child protection? Is it finding and enforcement of childhood neglect and abuse? Where did the system break down?"
See the original article at: KHON2 Local News