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DHS: Ohana Nui Concept To Address Sources of Poverty in Hawai'i

Wayne Yoshioka

The State Department of Human Services provides assistance to one in four Hawai’i residents and nearly half of the children.  As HPR’s Wayne Yoshioka reports, the department is attempting to improve the lives of vulnerable families.




The Ohana Nui program was adopted by the State Department of Human Services two years ago to address the root causes of poverty in Hawai’i.  It takes a multi-generational approach by looking at a child’s total environment: the mother, father, uncles, aunties and grandparents.  Ohana Nui provides services to enable the whole family to become self-sufficient.   DHS dire, Pankaj Bhanot, says integration improves efficiency.


“Home visitation in Department of Human Services was done from a potential child abuse and neglect perspective.  Department of Health had a program but there was no connection.  It was independently run from domestic violence and public health and some other perspectives.  Because of Ohana Nui, we combined the approach.  We’re now seamlessly, these families can be served”.


Today, a multi-disciplinary team will assess the entire family and bring in health, childcare, vocational or employment support as needed.   Bhanot has also partnered with private businesses and philanthropic organizations.


“Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco became a partner of Department of Human Services.  First in the history of Hawai’i.  They brought in the nonprofits and the philanthropy and that led to all these funding organizations to understand that they have to invest in multi-generational approaches if they are really going to move the needle on behalf of these families.”


Credit Wayne Yoshioka
Hawai'i Early Intervention Coordination Committee


But, integrating state department programs and services is not an easy task.  For example, Hawai’i’s Early Intervention Program under the Department of Health focuses on at-risk children from birth to 3 years of age.  The Department of Education’s Early Childhood Program, from birth to age 8.  These programs do not overlap nor do they work together for follow-on assistance for children and families.  Christine Jackson presented a Department of Education strategic plan update last month, revealing how difficult crossing departmental boundaries can be.


“This plan is meant to be a high-level framework for collective action.  This is not meant to be an implementation plan the way you think about implementation plans where you identify timelines and specific people and metrics and all that good stuff.  This is a higher level framework to really try to coordinate the work that we’re all doing.”


DHS Director Bhanot asked the legislature last session to pass a bill that would establish the Ohana Nui approach in state statute.  That bill died in conference committee.  Bhanot says integration cannot be accomplished overnight but it must be done to improve the lives of families and cut costs.


“The purpose is to bring the whole system together.  How we are going to do it is the key.  Because, we are so comfortable in our silos.  We have mastered the art of delivering through a silo.  We are absolutely in the regulatory phase of our lives.  We are so governed by our regulations that we don’t see collaboration, we don’t see integration, and forget about being generative.”


DHS has a 3.6 billion dollar budget, the largest among all state departments, and receives nearly 80 percent of all executive branch federal funding.  In my next report, the integration of the juvenile justice system and the improvements being made there.  Wayne Yoshioka, HPR News.

Wayne Yoshioka
Wayne Yoshioka is an award-winning journalist who has worked in television, print and radio in Hawaiʻi. He also has been on both sides of politics as a state departmental appointee and political/government reporter. He covered Hurricane Iwa (1982) as a TV reporter; was the State Department of Defense/Civil Defense spokesperson for Hurricane Iniki (1992); and, commanded a public affairs detachment in Afghanistan (2006). He has a master's degree in Communication from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and is a decorated combat veteran (Legion of Merit, Bronze Star and 22 other commendation/service medals). He resides in Honolulu.
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