A Hawaii Mother Haunted By The Brutal Killing Of One Child Tries To Hold Onto Another | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #schoolsafey

The mother of a Waimanalo girl allegedly murdered by the couple who adopted her says she is sober and working to prevent the state from putting her newborn son into the same system.

Melanie Joseph has been dealing with all the normal anxieties of being a new mother after the birth of her son last month — getting to pediatrician appointments, keeping a bag stocked with diapers and wipes, establishing sleeping and eating schedules.

She’s also facing a terror that few parents could imagine.

Melanie Joseph, the birth mother of Ariel Sellers sits in her studio apartment holding her newborn son, Azariyus. Ariel was recently declared dead by a local judge and her adoptive parents are awaiting trial for murder. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Two years ago, Joseph’s daughter Ariel disappeared from the home where she had been placed after the state took her from Joseph.

It didn’t take long for authorities to uncover perhaps the most notorious case of child abuse in recent Hawaii history.

A Waimanalo couple, Lehua and Isaac Kalua, had taken in Ariel and her sisters as foster children, then adopted them, giving Ariel a new name — Isabella Kalua.

The Kaluas confined 6-year-old Isabella to a dog cage in a bathroom to keep her from wandering around the house at night looking for the food her adoptive parents failed to provide, her older sister told authorities. The sister reported that she and Lehua Kalua found Isabella dead in the cage, her mouth and nose covered with duct tape.

The girl’s body has never been found, but last month, a probate court judge declared her dead. And the Kaluas are facing murder charges with their trial scheduled to begin later this month.

Isaac and Lehua KaluaIsaac and Lehua Kalua
Isaac and Lehua Kalua are charged with second-degree murder in connection with the death of their adoptive daughter Isabella. (Courtesy: Hawaii County Police Department/2021)

Joseph’s deepest fear is that her newborn son, Azariyus, will be placed in the same foster system that took her daughter’s life.

This time around, she has a much different attitude.

“I’m a lot more protective,” she said.

She says that during her pregnancy, she broke the methamphetamine habit that led to her children first being taken by the state in 2018. She leaned on meth to help deal with the horror of Ariel’s mistreatment and death, she said — but it just made things worse.

She’s preemptively doing the services that the state wanted her to do several years ago to regain custody of her other children. She hopes that by getting ahead of the requirements, she can keep Azariyus and be reunited with two of Ariel’s sisters.

But despite her clean drug tests at Azariyus’ birth and beyond, she says, the state’s Child Welfare Services has already stepped in.

Two days after Azariyus was born, a state social worker filed a child safety assessment, finding that Joseph’s history of substance abuse prevents her from protecting or providing for her son. The report stated that she had not proven that she is rehabilitated and listed a number of steps that she should take.

The social worker told her she’d be summoned to appear in Family Court two weeks later. Now it’s been a month and she still does not have a court date. She’s not sure what’s going on. Nor does she know where her four surviving daughters are — though she hears rumors.

Joseph complained to Cathy Betts, director of the department that oversees CWS, that the social worker had altered the checked-box responses on her assessment after she had signed it and taken several other steps Joseph believed were improper.

The Department of Human Services did not respond to a request for comment. But in an email provided to Civil Beat, Betts told Joseph she had assigned her senior staff to look into her complaints and had alerted the Attorney General’s Office.

Joseph is living in the back bedroom of a cousin’s Kaneohe house. The vine-cloaked walls of the pali loom a few miles away. A small papaya tree bearing enormous fruit grows in the backyard. Joseph’s worldly possessions are neatly stacked in containers against one wall. Azariyus’ bassinet sits next to her king-size bed.

“It’s nice to be able to take care of my kids — at least one of them,” she said.

Melanie Joseph and her daughter Ariel.Melanie Joseph and her daughter Ariel.
Melanie Joseph took a selfie with her daughter Ariel before the girl disappeared. (Courtesy: Melanie Joseph/2023)

A Death Leads To Addiction

Joseph grew up in Waimanalo and graduated from Castle High School. In her late 20s, she said, she took care of her brother, struggling with cancer.

“I was up with him 24-7,” she said. “I was the one who took care of him.”

When he died in early 2017, Joseph said, she fell into the meth habit that would derail her life.

It’s an all-too-common story in Hawaii, which has long been in the grip of the drug. In many child welfare cases, one or both parents have been using meth. Unlike on much of the mainland, meth overdose deaths in Hawaii far outnumber those caused by opioids. On Oahu from 2016 to 2021, the ratio was 3-to-1.

Joseph said that most of her acquaintances in Waimanalo are still in the throes of meth addiction — one reason she keeps her distance by living in Kaneohe.

A year or so into her addiction in 2018, when she gave birth to one of her daughters, Joseph tested positive for meth. As often happens in such cases, the state got involved.

At first, the children were placed with Joseph’s mother, Barbara Kumai. But after six months or so, Joseph said, her mother told her that the children would be moving in with Isaac (who also goes by Sonny) and Lehua Kalua.

Kumai said shortly after Ariel disappeared that the state had removed Ariel and her older sister from her home after expressing concerns about Kumai’s ability to care for them while she was dealing with her boyfriend’s serious motorcycle accident.

“The social worker said she didn’t want me to get overwhelmed,” Kumai told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “She should have given me a chance.”

Joseph and her cousin, Taeia Costa, believe there was another factor in the state’s decision to place the children with the Kaluas — Lehua believed that her brother was the father of the youngest girl, which Joseph says is not true.

Signs Of Abuse

Joseph visited the kids when they lived with her mother. After they were moved to the Kalua household, she said, she saw them two or three times a week.

At the Kaluas, she says she started noticing signs of abuse.

A child related to the Kaluas would bully Ariel, taking away her toys and and trying to hit her, Joseph said. But the Kaluas did nothing.

“I kind of scolded him one day and after that, I couldn’t have visits at the house,” Joseph said.

The state arranged for her to keep seeing the kids at her mother’s house, a CWS office downtown or the Waimanalo public library.

During these visits, Joseph said, she started seeing other signs of abuse. She noticed bruises on Ariel’s arms. When she was lifting her into the car after a visit, Ariel’s shirt pulled up and Joseph saw bruises on her back and head.

Joseph said she alerted the CWS social worker, who said Ariel had been pinching herself.

“My daughter doesn’t pinch herself,” Joseph said. “That’s not normal.”

Another time, Ariel’s finger was swollen and Joseph said she asked the girl what happened. Ariel ground her foot into the floor. Joseph believes she was pantomiming someone stomping on her finger.

The social worker, she said, attributed it to a bug bite.

After Ariel disappeared, Joseph saw a Hawaii News Now report that Ariel’s finger had been broken in October 2019, while she was in the Kaluas’ care, and that there had been a delay in reporting it to the state or getting it treated.

Joseph said she also noted how hungry Ariel always seemed to be.

During the visits, Joseph would bring snacks for the kids. “She constantly wanted to eat,” Joseph said. “She’d eat whatever I brought.”

Joseph said she tried to find out what life was like for her kids in the Kalua home. But Ariel, sometimes at the insistence of her older sister, kept quiet.

“My daughter always looked happy,” Joseph said. “Every time I saw her, she had a smile on her face. But she’d never really talk to me.”

A lawsuit filed this week against the state alleges that child welfare workers were warned repeatedly that the Kaluas were abusing Ariel — by doctors, a teacher and others — but failed to adequately investigate and advocated for the Kaluas to adopt the children.

The lawsuit says that the Kaluas took Ariel to different doctors to avoid suspicion when she suffered from bruises, fractures and other injuries. Isaac Kalua took off work, according to the suit, supposedly because he had contracted Covid-19, when he actually needed time to dispose of the girl’s body.

Homeless On The Beach

Joseph said she doesn’t remember a lot from the time around Ariel’s disappearance. She had been homeless, living on Waimanalo beaches.

A review of Hawaii court records shows that Joseph’s only interactions with law enforcement have been four citations in 2019 and 2020 for putting up an illegal tent on the beach or being in a park after closure. She has no criminal record.

Isaac Kalua, by contrast, had felony convictions for terroristic threatening and assault. Lehua Kalua had a felony drug arrest, but her case was dismissed after she graduated from drug court. These cases could have disqualified them from becoming foster parents, but unlike some convictions, did not automatically bar them.

When Ariel disappeared two years ago, Joseph said she knew right away that her daughter would not have run away, as the Kaluas had suggested.

“My daughter’s afraid of the dark,” she said. “She would never leave at night. She would never even come out of the house.”

What she does recall from the frantic days after Ariel’s disappearance was a growing sense of panic and fear. People were making donations, but Joseph said she didn’t care about the things people were bringing. “I just wanted to find my daughter,” she said.

In the weeks and months that followed, meth seemed to offer some respite.

“I was using for a long time because I just thought it would help me deal with it,” she said. “I just got tired of doing it. Then I got pregnant with him.” She gestured toward her newborn son.

A friend who was still using meth coaxed her to get sober, she said, and helped her get through detox. That friend has since also stopped using, and the two offer each other support. She said the father of her children, Adam Sellers, is also in rehab.

Costa, Joseph’s cousin, recalls getting a tearful phone call from her one night shortly after she got sober.

“I wasn’t there,” Costa recalls her saying. “My baby was probably crying for me, and I wasn’t there. I didn’t save her.”

Costa replied, “Honey, at that time you couldn’t even save yourself. And we’ve just got to work from here.”

After getting clean, Costa said, Joseph embarked on her mission to do the services that the state had required before Ariel’s death.

“She was the driving force there,” Costa said. “She started making all those calls.”

In the meantime, Costa said, “It’s become a full support system in the background. Everybody’s on the team cheering for her and trying to do whatever they can to open avenues and doorways for her to be able to get all the help she needs.”

Joseph is doing intensive outpatient treatment online, seeing one therapist and trying to line up another to help deal with grief over Ariel and all that’s happened.

“It’s OK,” she said. “I’m not used to talking about it, but I’ve got to start somewhere.”

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