When you think of people who are arrested, you probably don’t picture an impoverished teenager or an abused child. But these youth are exactly who are most at-risk for committing crimes as juveniles or even adults.
There are thousands of youth in the juvenile justice system across Hawaiʻi. A 2016 survey had 3,717 juveniles arrested on Oʻahu alone. The majority of these offenders are young men, and most offenses involve “status offenses” (crimes committed by minors like underage drinking and smoking), theft, or drug offenses. Most of the juveniles that are arrested are Native Hawaiian.
Native Hawaiians are repeatedly at the negative end of all kinds of state and federal statistics. Rates of poverty, lack of education, homelessness, drug abuse, health problems and more all add up to make Native Hawaiians among the most disadvantaged economic groups in the country.
These long-term rates and trends have severe implications for the well-being of our Native Hawaiian youth. Numerous studies have shown that poverty and other poor socioeconomic factors have a significant effect on children’s educational outcomes, self-esteem, and even mental health.
Besides affecting education, families experiencing income issues often result in the parents or caregivers being absent from the home for extended periods of time. This lack of supervision or family interaction can also have a negative impact on youth.
Mike Kahue is the Program Director of Ke Kama Pomo, a program of Partners in Development Foundation (PIDF). Ke Kama Pono works with adjudicated boys aged 13 to 17. “When we get them, all of them don’t want to be here. They have chips on their shoulders, they come with attitude problems, all they want to do is fight. All they want to do is rebel, to not be here,” says Mike.
Jordan is one young man who went through the Ke Kama Pono program. Derrin “Jordan” Araki is a 21 year-old from Japan. He came to Hawaiʻi with his biological father as a child, but soon found himself in foster care. He got involved with drugs and into trouble at school. After completing what he calls “just another program,” he was given the option of returning to his foster family or going to Ke Kama Pono. He chose the latter.
Jordan wasn’t new to the system. He, like 82% of Hawaiian youth according to a report by the State of Hawaiʻi Office of Youth Services, offended multiple times. This rate of recidivism is shocking on its own, and even more so when compared to the national average of 55%.
It takes a village
The ultimate goal of Ke Kama Pono is to reunite adjudicated young men with their families. It’s a similar goal of other state-sponsored programs and initiatives like foster care, and it puts a spotlight on the numerous factors that can contribute to the boys getting into trouble.
They come to Ke Kama Pono through the court system, usually arrested for crimes like truancy (skipping school), substance abuse, or minor assaults (typically on family members), says Mike. He remembers when Jordan first came to Ke Kama Pono, saying that when someone first comes in, he and the staff always look to see how they do with everyone else in the program’s house.
“They all think that [Ke Kama Pono] is not for them,” says Mike of the boys. “They all think they would do so much better on their own. But the reason they’re here is because that’s where they’ve failed — doing this on their own.” Mike says Jordan always “tried extra hard to be the tough guy” because of his small stature.
But it didn’t take long for Jordan’s attitude to turn around. He became close with the other boys in the program, adapted to the routines, and worked hard at the tasks he was given. He frequently helped Mike with building projects around the site, and enjoyed working with his hands. “This kid is going to be something someday,” Mike remembers thinking.
Jordan says he now knows the value of hard work and appreciates everything ‘Uncle’ Mike taught him. Although it was tough in the beginning, it felt great knowing that he wasn’t alone and that every one of the boys at Ke Kama Pono was struggling. Even if they didn’t get along every day, there was a bond between them and they supported one another.
Poʻokela – fostering excellence
Deni Araki first came to Ke Kama Pono as an intern while finishing her degree in social work at the University of Phoenix. After completing the community service component and earning her degree, she was hired on as an on-call Direct Care Counselor.
She was amazed by the work of the program, and admired how Mike and the rest of the staff worked to instill values, responsibility, and greater self-esteem in the young men. “The values that are shared with the boys not only represent our culture, but help the boys to realize that whatever theyʻre going through, they have a place to call home.”
Since its inception, Ke Kama Pono has been hugely successful at reuniting boys with their families and helping to prepare them for future success. Compared to the state recidivism rate of 82%, Ke Kama Pono boasts a figure of only 26%. Clearly, Mike and his staff are on to something.
While working at Ke Kama Pono, Deni helped the boys with their school work, cooked and acted as a chaperone for other daily activities. She says she wasn’t particularly close with any of the boys, but tried to keep an open mind and support them however she could.
“Deni did marvelous things with the boys,” says Mike. “We could see that her passion with these boys was genuine.”
Deni’s relationship with Jordan started because of a dream she says she had for weeks, of she and her husband walking Jordan out of the Ke Kama Pono house and into their lives,. Despite never having had more than the most basic interactions with Jordan before, and after some weeks of conversations with her husband, Deni approached Mike with her intentions.
She pursued her decision, contacting an attorney and going through all of the adoption processes. It wasn’t easy. Deni says there were multiple counseling sessions where she was reminded of Jordan’s history, issues, his broken home, and his anger. She had every opportunity to back out, but she never did. Deni left Ke Kama Pono to avoid conflicts of interest and, while she was sad to leave, she felt called to show Jordan a life of love.
Jordan was shocked when staff told him someone wanted to adopt him. He was even more surprised that it was Deni — someone he had very few interactions with during his time at Ke Kama Pono. He had so many mixed emotions about the adoption process and both he and Deni knew it would be a long road. But given a choice, Jordan chose Deni.
Not bad, just broken
As soon as Deni got word she would be able to adopt Jordan, she told him, “you’ll never have to feel like you’re not loved ever again. We’re going to love you for the rest of your life.”
Since Jordan joined the rest of the Araki ʻohana, it has been an adjustment and learning experience for everyone — with some positive surprises along the way. All of the Araki kids play the piano, and Deni wasn’t going to let Jordan be the exception.
Before long, it became apparent that Jordan had a natural talent: he could play piano by ear. His natural talent with instruments has led him to be part of the worship team for his family’s church, where he plays piano for the congregation.
To anyone in his situation, Jordan says “don’t give up.”
Currently a Program Specialist with the Department of Education, Deni believes in the power of programs like Ke Kama Pono to help youth in need. She believes the kids that come through aren’t bad — they’re just broken. Jordan agrees.
“A lot of times when kids are acting out, they just need love. I know that because I’m loved right now, and it’s a great feeling… A lot of kids just need love and attention. If they get that, they’ll behave. Just love them, and they’ll be good kids.”