By Sarah Hodges
EPIC ‘Ohana’s vision and innovative approaches are tremendous steps in vastly improving our foster care system. From attorney to the director of EPIC ‘Ohana, Laurie Tochiki at EPIC ‘Ohana is transforming the foster care system to make it into a more supportive, thriving system for Hawai’i’s youth.
EPIC ‘Ohana began with a pilot project in 1996 when family court attorney Laurie Tochiki and Arlynna Livingston came together in an effort to found a program that could help foster children and strengthen families who were struggling in times of crisis. As of today, EPIC ‘Ohana has grown to have over 100 employees statewide.
I spoke with Laurie this week as EPIC celebrates its 25th year as a nonprofit organization. Laurie still has a strong presence with EPIC ‘Ohana today. She would never have guessed when she became a lawyer many years ago that her focus would shift to the field of social work. “I was a practicing attorney, working in family court and watching cases come in day after day with struggling families. Our judge heard about a method called Family Group Decision Making in New Zealand and thought this would be very helpful to families in Hawai’i.”
The term ‘child welfare’ refers to the services designed to ensure the safety of children, working to strengthen families to succeed in caring for their children. At its core, it works towards the health, happiness, and wellbeing of a child.
“We try to bring extended family into the circle of support when children have been abused or neglected,” says Laurie. “To have a child’s extended family step forward can be a huge asset.” With funding from the Edna Clark foundation, experts from New Zealand came to Hawai‘i to share their experience with Family Group Decision Making. Lili‘uokalani Trust also traveled to New Zealand to learn more about the process.
Child welfare services continue to be overwhelmed, receiving lots of criticism especially from the wider community. It’s a very complicated topic and often requires a complex and nuanced approach. In the past, the extended family of a child was often excluded from decision making. Family Group Decision Making process has become a state wide service. This service includes the child’s ‘ohana (family) in what happens next in the child’s troubled life, rather than separating the child from everyone who knows and cares about them.
After successfully launching Family Group Decision Making process, EPIC ‘Ohana began a program for foster youth who were “aging out” and becoming adults. Laurie explained to me how EPIC ‘Ohana is now supporting new adults from the foster program with planning assistance, helping them to find a place to live, attain healthcare, make career decisions, or begin school. EPIC ‘Ohana also hosts Youth Circles for meaningful conversations and peer support.
“Things grew from there. We began an initiative called HI HOPES – an organization of current and former foster youth who advocate for brothers and sisters in the foster care system,” says Laurie. “HI HOPES brings former foster children into a leadership role to help those who are younger and still considered foster children. We have just under 300 current foster youth and former foster youth in the HI HOPES match program.”
I felt so encouraged and inspired by the end of my call with Laurie Tochiki.
“Families are the foundation of our community, and their well-being is inextricably linked to the health and prosperity of the community, state, and nation. EPIC works to strengthen ‘ohana and enhance the welfare of children and youth through transformative processes that are respectful, collaborative and solution-oriented,” according to EPIC ‘Ohana’s mission statement.
“I’m very proud of the amazing, loving people who believe in these families,” says Laurie. “We try to strengthen each other. It’s not easy work, especially when people are in the middle of crisis and challenge, but together we can do a lot. The work is very rewarding.”
EPIC ‘Ohana brings a spark of joy to the families and young people who go through Hawai’i’s foster care system.
Discover more about EPIC ‘Ohana here: https://www.epicohana.org/about
Get the Still & Moving App
This post is also available in: 日本語 (Japanese)