Published September 14, 2009 by The Garden Island

HI: Residents protest family court

by Paul Curtis

LIHU‘E — Domestic Violence Awareness Month is still a few weeks away, but someone who knows a flawed system when she is ensnared in one feels the need for “sunlight” on the problem on Kaua‘i is more immediate.

Jonea Schillaci-Lavergne, who won a historic California court case but still lost her daughter to another state’s child-protective system, followed her daughter to Kaua‘i to be close to her and has organized at least two rallies to raise awareness of what she sees as problems in the state-run system designed to protect Hawai‘i’s youngest, most-vulnerable residents.

“I feel that the public really needs to be more informed about what’s going on on Kaua‘i,” she said during a telephone interview Tuesday. “Child abuse should not be kept a secret. We have to put the sunlight on the problem.”

The name of her group is the Kaua‘i Angels, patterned after the Maui Angels, a similar group of concerned adults on Maui who are pushing for state Family Court reform on the Valley Isle.

While Schillaci-Lavergne’s first rally, Thursday morning in front of the state courthouse here, started slowly, she said by telephone Friday morning that more people joined in at the Kapule Highway-Ahukini Road intersection near the entrance to Lihu‘e Airport, and well-wishers honked their horns at those sign-holders most of Thursday morning.

Gatherings are also planned at two busy sections of state highways Thursday, Sept. 17, the day the group also plans to meet with Mayor Bernard P. Carvalho Jr., she said.

The rallies are from 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. at the airport intersection, and along Kaumuali‘i Highway near Kilohana and Kaua‘i Community College from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

The purpose of the rallies is to inform the community that Schillaci-Lavergne and others feel the Kaua‘i Family Court and its court-appointed experts are not doing enough to protect children from abuse and domestic violence, she said in a press release.

Child sexual abuse, in particular, has become a national epidemic, and judges spend more time ignoring and suppressing facts and medical evidence than investigating and prosecuting perpetrators, she said.

Marsha Kitagawa, a spokesperson for the state Judiciary, said state judges are prohibited under the Revised Code of Judicial Conduct from making public statements that “might reasonably be expected to affect the outcome or impair the fairness of a matter pending or impending in any court.”

Still, Kitagawa said “The Family Court protects a child’s best interests in several ways. In general, a parent’s right to custody may be curtailed, suspended or terminated if the judge finds that the parent is a threat to the safety of the child or additional visitation days would not be in the child’s best interests.

“Despite having legal representation and ample opportunity for recourse, litigants like Ms. Shillaci-Lavergne continue to be dissatisfied with the court’s decisions and blame the system and/or the judge,” Kitagawa said in an e-mail Friday afternoon.

“Child-custody cases involve difficult and emotionally-charged issues and, unfortunately and all too often, the non-prevailing parties involved in these types of cases wrongly perceive the justice system to be unfair, unjust, or ineffectual,” Kitagawa said.

“Regardless of how the parents/parties may feel, the Family Court’s and judges’ first and foremost objective is to protect the best interests of the child, as required by law.”

Schillaci-Lavergne is undeterred. “I’ve seen so much struggle and suffering going on. It’s a problem everywhere,” she said.

“It’s not a fun subject. I didn’t choose it,” she said of her cause to let people know about what she sees as the broken Family Court system she says protects the abuser, sometimes just to punish the protective parent who reports the abuse. “It chose me.”

Efforts to reach state Department of Human Services Child Welfare Services officials for comment on the allegations were unsuccessful by press time.

A group of concerned parents who were unable to protect their children from abuse gathered and demanded a state audit of the Maui Family Court, she said in her e-mail about the origins of the Maui Angels.

The Kaua‘i Angels are asking that child-abuse cases be properly investigated and that the protective parents be allowed due process in court to fight for and protect their children from abuse, she said.

“Children should not be placed with the abuser.”

Approximately one in three girls and one in five boys will be sexually abused (in most cases by a family member) by age 18.

“These statistics are unacceptable for our children and, as a community, we need to end this problem immediately,” she said in her e-mail.

Dara Carlin, who holds a master’s degree and has spent 20 years as a child and family therapist on O‘ahu, said what’s happening in Hawai‘i is both “disillusioning and disheartening.”

Carlin said at the rally Thursday at the courthouse that while she is totally “for the parent-child relationship,” she is “100 percent against victim-perpetrator relationship.”

She also totally understands that, culturally, because of the shame brought on families by the offenses, people are sometimes reluctant to come forward and admit that they have been or are being abused, she said.

And, in some segments of the population, it may be OK to kick a dog in the head, but it’s never OK to kick a child or wife or other woman in the head, Carlin said.

Ernest Sisca, a Wailua Homesteads resident and one of the half-dozen men who gathered at the courthouse, said he came to support Schillaci-Lavergne, who gave up her California home and career in order to be close to her daughter on Kaua‘i, where the daughter lives with her father.

The group is selling T-shirts to raise funds for the cause. The front of the shirt says “Children Against Court Appointed Child Abuse,” and the back says, “I’ll wear the black and blue so the children won’t have to.”

For more information, contact Schillaci-Lavergne, 707-364-5069, or visit

• Paul C. Curtis, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or

Custody & Abuse