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Who’s Looking for Hawaii’s Missing Girls?

A new effort to investigate the crisis of missing and murdered Native Hawaiian women and girls also has to confront the role of law enforcement.

It was a late morning in September when Detective Maile Rego of the County of Honolulu Police Department heard that 6-year-old Ariel Sellers had gone missing from her adoptive parents’ home on the eastern side of Oahu.

Rego has been on the force for 15 years and has been a detective focused on child abuse cases since 2014. She’s trained for years with a network of state and federal agencies across the islands who work on crimes against minors to coordinate cohesive responses in moments like this one. She knew what she would do to help find Ariel (also known as Isabella Kalua, the name given to her by her adoptive parents). But Rego wasn’t on the case. She was at home, where she’s been on leave for months. Like everyone else on the island, she watched the search for Ariel unfold on the local news and was devastated when the girl’s adoptive parents were arrested and charged with her murder two months after she was reported missing.

It’s been a long time since Rego hasn’t been privy to an investigation like this. Following the case as a civilian, she told me in a recent phone call, “I see what the public sees, and I go through the same emotions of it.” Unlike the public, however, she also notes what she doesn’t see—namely, law enforcement agencies working effectively together from day one.

Rego hasn’t set foot inside HPD headquarters since March, after, according to a lawsuit she filed against the department in August, commanders began retaliating against her because she alleged negligence in Hawaii’s other high-profile missing child case last year, that of 18-month-old Kytana Ancog in February. Rego alleges that HPD’s missing persons detail delayed its investigation into the toddler’s disappearance for two days and failed to alert other state and federal partners, including the FBI.

The only case Rego is working on now is her own. She spends her days preparing her lawsuit with the same meticulousness and fervor that she would put into a child abuse case. She sits for hours at the breakfast bar in her kitchen—her makeshift home office—“gathering evidence, organizing evidence, making timelines, pairing policies and laws with each experience,” she wrote me. It’s a maddening ritual of turning over the same stones again and again, but if she slows down, she says, “it’s not pretty.” When she reaches her limit, she sets an alarm on her phone and steps away to go walk the dog. When the alarm goes off, she’s back at it.

In this process, she relives every misstep she believes HPD made in Kytana’s case. “A missing child is a race against time,” Rego told me. “And the perpetrators have a head start.”   

Watching the search for Ariel—which was called off after about a week and evolved into a murder investigation weeks later with the FBI’s help—Rego was convinced of at least one thing: Amid the anger and exasperation of yet another case of a small child gone missing, she felt oddly (“horrendously”) assured that she was doing the right thing by filing her lawsuit. “Nothing will change if someone doesn’t take this on,” she told me. “Ariel is proof of that.”

As of 2019, Hawaii—a state whose population, 1.4 million, is comparable to that of San Diego, California—had the eighth-highest rate of missing persons per capita in the nation. Amanda Leonard, branch chief of the Missing Child Center-Hawaii, a state clearinghouse that assists law enforcement and affected families, has said that about 2,000 children across Hawaii are reported missing each year, although very few of them are as young as Ariel or Kytana. The vast majority go missing on Oahu, where more than two-thirds of the state population lives and where HPD has jurisdiction across the entire island. Here, the Honolulu police, as Oahu’s first responders, have greater reach than the state sheriffs, Rego told me. As the principal law enforcement authority on the island, it is HPD that ultimately decides which kids are worth looking for.

There are several things that are known about Hawaii’s missing children: Most of them are girls, ages 15 and 16 on average, and most of them have been through the foster care system, per Leonard. And the majority of them aren’t even considered missing. In the eyes of law enforcement, they’re classified as runaways, which affords them fewer resources and attention than high-profile cases like Ariel’s receive. What’s more, Native Hawaiians, the Indigenous people of these islands, who make up about 20 percent of the state’s total population, are disproportionately represented among the missing. 

The effort to understand why is still in its infancy. While the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, or MMIWG, on the mainland is widely acknowledged, Hawaii is challenged with a dearth of information needed to build consensus that there even is a crisis for Indigenous people in the state. But preliminary data suggests that Native Hawaiian women and girls are victimized by some of the same factors behind MMIWG on the continent: that is, poverty, the foster care system, sex trafficking, domestic violence, and the enduring legacy of colonization and dispossession.

Last year, the Hawaii State Legislature approved the creation of a statewide, multiyear task force—co-chaired by the heads of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women—to build off what scant data already exists and give shape to a situation advocates have been sounding the alarm on for years. It officially launched in August and is slated to present reports of its findings to the legislature at the end of 2022 and 2023. 

While law enforcement is ostensibly involved in the task force, it is not leading it, unlike similar task forces in other states; rather, this one relies on state agencies and community partners that advocate for Native Hawaiians, women, and gender-diverse people to devise community-informed approaches to its research and data collection. Consequently, nothing is off-limits to its inquiry—including law enforcement’s role in the crisis. The MMIWG crisis in Hawaii is a complex example of a question that communities around the country are reckoning with: How should communities confront violence when police ignore or are implicated in the problem? In their own ways, Detective Rego and the task force are trying to work through this same fundamental quandary.

The news outlets that covered Ariel’s disappearance did not identify her by her Native Hawaiian heritage, which was confirmed by her biological aunt; she was reported to be mixed Caucasian and white. Racial misclassification is a known hindrance to collecting accurate data on MMIWG on the mainland, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute, leading to “gross undercounts” that inaccurately reflect the scope of violence. The Hawaii task force faces the same challenge in its data collection.

Hawaii is the most diverse state in the country—no racial group holds a majority—and the common perception of it as a multiracial paradise often ends up obscuring the hardship faced by Native Hawaiians specifically. “One of the main struggles of this task force is going to be the ‘melting pot’ myth in Hawaii, because people view Native Hawaiians as just another race,” said Khara Jabola-Carolus, executive director of the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women and co-chair of the task force. The melting pot image “basically gaslights reality and says everyone is just from a different place, and we’re all here together, and each race is to be treated equally.” 

Police officers sometimes don’t document the race of the victims they encounter, according to Jabola-Carolus, who said that police partners cautioned that the fidelity of the data they contribute will only be as good as the officer on patrol.

Law enforcement may also disagree with who’s considered missing in the first place. Leonard, from Missing Child Center-Hawaii, or MCCH, is one of two staff in her department assisting law enforcement with missing children’s cases across the entire state. She told me that 2021 was the busiest year she’s seen since she started working there three years ago. The majority of her caseload is on Oahu and involves “endangered runaways”—most of them youth from foster care, who are known to be at high risk of harm either from themselves or others, including abusive partners, gangs, and traffickers. In 2019, 45 percent of the children in foster care were either full or part Native Hawaiian, which may factor into how many of MCCH’s cases involve Native Hawaiian children. “It is definitely something that we’ve noticed,” Leonard said.

According to HPD’s policy on juvenile runaways, shared with me by a department spokesperson, an officer is supposed to conduct an initial investigation into whether there is foul play or risk of harm to the youth. After that, they are to perform “appropriate checks to attempt to locate” them. But in Rego’s experience, “it is a true rarity for an HPD officer to actively look for a runaway.”  

Even when a case is handled as a missing person, there are two detectives who act as the first responders on the island for missing persons cases, and they are responsible for anywhere between 50 to 70 cases a month, as Reid Tagomori, one of those detectives, told a local news channel in 2019. “There is also a few of those who choose to go missing,” Tagomori added. “It is not breaking the law to go missing. If they want to go missing, it is their choice.”

But the reasons they made that choice, and what happens to them while they’re missing, are the real questions, and the onus is on HPD to assess the risk and determine whether to look for them. As the system currently works, according to Rego and advocates, there’s little distinction between a runaway foster child who is at high risk for sex trafficking and a child from an affluent area who’s run away for the first time after an argument with their parents.

“I wish they could just call them ‘missing.’ It’s exhausting asking people to stop calling them ‘runaways,’” said Victoria Roland, a program director at the Susannah Wesley Community Center for the Trafficking Victims Assistance Program. She herself is a lived-experience expert in sex trafficking, a term she prefers over survivor. For three years, she headed the state’s only shelter for youth who had been sexually exploited, founded in 2018. Most of the children who came to stay at her shelter were classified as runaways. She recalled the many times she filed police reports for youths absent from her care with an apathetic dispatch, who would respond, “What are you calling for then?” or “Well, let us know when they come back, and we’ll cancel the runaway report.” Roland said that she believed few of the patrol officers with whom she interacted after filing a report were even aware of the type of shelter she was calling from, or its significance. She says they often didn’t express any urgency in responding to her reports. “It feels like I’m just making a statement and handing off the responsibility,” Roland told me. (In an emailed statement, the HPD spokesperson, Sarah Yoro, said that “in cases where a juvenile is determined to be a victim of or at high risk of commercial sexual exploitation, the physical recovery of the juvenile is the priority.”) 

Most of the youth at the shelter were either Native Hawaiian or part Hawaiian, Roland added. “That is an absolute.” Many children who went missing from Roland’s care would either return on their own or were recovered by word of mouth through the community. “There was a lot of footwork done by [community members] saying, ‘Oh, I saw this girl here,’ or, ‘This girl’s on social media with this girl,’ or ‘Have you tried calling her auntie, because her auntie knows her boyfriend, and he might know where she was at,’” said Roland. “As a community, we respond better.”

Rego also credited the “coconut wireless.” On an island of a little over 960,000 people, “everybody is in each other’s business,” she explained, “and news spreads fast.” Even as she’s sidelined at home, Rego goes through the motions of detective work. She monitors her usual roster of social media accounts to get a pulse on what the community is saying. She could measure the growing frustration over Ariel’s case over the weeks that the public went without updates on the investigation and observed the rumor mill swirling around the adoptive parents, whom many suspected from the beginning. “The community is reeling,” Rego told me. “I’m with them on that.”

Law enforcement’s relationship with the Hawaiian community is a fraught one. On one hand, unlike other police departments, HPD’s racial and ethnic makeup is reflective of the state’s, with 21 percent of officers identifying as Native Hawaiian. On the other, like many police departments, HPD’s relationship with the community is marred by a lack of transparency, habitual abuse of power, excessive use of force, and blanket impunity for negligence and misconduct. In October, the Justice Department announced it was considering an investigation into a host of complaints against HPD, and the possibility of installing a federal monitor to provide oversight.

Police on the islands historically have been deployed to suppress Native Hawaiians and fulfill Western efforts to erase Indigenous culture, and despite the ample representation of Native Hawaiians on the force today, its current function maintains that legacy. As much was evident as recently as 2019, when HPD and Maui County police flew to the island of Hawaii and joined the local police there, three state agencies, and the National Guard—armed with riot gear, chemical dispersants, and a sound cannon—to clamp down on a protest led by Native Hawaiian elders (many of whom were in their seventies and eighties) against a massive telescope being built on Mauna Kea, a mountain sacred to Hawaiian traditions of creation.

As of 2015, Hawaii had one of the highest rates of police killings per capita, and a spate of high-profile police shootings in the last year have focused attention on the issue (part of the problem, many argue, is that HPD conducts its own investigations into such incidents and only sometimes refers them to an independent review board, as it is required to by law). Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are still disproportionately arrested and brutalized by police, according to an HPD study, as well as overrepresented among the incarcerated in Hawaii. “[Law enforcement in Hawaii] is there to facilitate the values of the occupier,” said Jabola-Carolus. “It’s our state military, and it’s become increasingly militarized, just like other police departments.”

Sex trafficking is another topic under review by the task force. While the politics of anti–sex trafficking campaigns are hotly debated on the mainland, many survivor advocates increasingly favor education and community engagement over law enforcement interventions. Hawaii is novel in its shift away from carceral approaches: It’s the first state to vacate criminal convictions for sex-trafficking victims without requiring that they prove their victimhood, and in 2021, Honolulu’s prosecuting attorney ended prostitution raids. Yet it remains the case that Native Hawaiians are particularly targeted for exploitation in the islands, a reality confirmed by survivor testimonies.

The main culprits, according to some survivors and experts, are two of the largest contributors to Hawaii’s economy—the military and tourism. The latter alone, in 2019, invited a transient population 10 times larger than the resident population to and from the islands. The economic importance of these two sectors likely accounts for why few are ready to confront their role in the local crises of trafficked and missing persons, said Jabola-Carolus. One survivor I spoke with was trafficked to military personnel on Oahu as a teenager and said that younger women are especially vulnerable. “The more experienced girls aren’t going to go to the military bases because they know how out of control they can get,” she said. “You’re just not safe there.” Jabola-Carolus said that a government official once told her, “‘If we scare off tourism, we’ll all be trafficking each other, because that’s all we’ll have.’ … That’s the attitude.”

Then, of course, there’s the role of law enforcement. “Police have an antagonistic relationship with the very people who are at the center of this inquiry, which is Native Hawaiian women—and, in particular, women who are at higher risk of going missing and murdered, which [means] women in the sex industry,” said Jabola-Carolus. From January to June 2018, HPD arrested 37 people for prostitution, compared to the 14 people they arrested who were sex buyers. Police have also been known to be buyers. One sex-trafficking survivor, whose testimony was collected in 2019, said that she had “hooked up with cops regularly and sold sex to many of the officers” involved in prostitution sting operations. Until 2014, on-duty officers were exempted from prosecution for having sex during prostitution stings. “The same people that are charging you for prostitution are the people turning around and buying it from you,” said another participant in the 2019 study.

There has yet to be a sex-trafficking case prosecuted in Hawaii since the state criminalized it in 2016—the last to do so. Rego said that’s partly because the investigations take a long time, but she also acknowledged that those cases have not received adequate resources, energy, or priority from law enforcement.

The reason for that may have to do with the more fundamental questions about power and authority in the islands raised by the task force. Rego is not part of the task force, and while she is sympathetic to its mission, she knows its perspective may differ from hers, as a longtime cop. In any case, the group faces an uphill battle as it tries to give the crisis dimension and inform the state’s ability to better respond to it. No additional money was attached to the task force when it was approved, and, in the same legislative session that created it, the budget for the Commission on the Status of Women was cut. 

Early last February, Rego was in a forensic interview with a victim in one of her cases when her phone rang on silent mode. She had missed calls and texts from friends, family, and colleagues, all asking if she’d heard about Kytana Ancog. News of the toddler’s disappearance was blowing up on social media. She’d been reported missing by her mother, who had custody of her, when her father failed to return her home. When Rego got back to her desk that day, she pulled the report on Kytana, dated February 10, from her computer. Two days had passed, and the MCCH had yet to be informed of the child’s disappearance, as required by federal law. Neither had the FBI been informed. So she told them. By then, it would emerge, Kytana was likely deceased; her father later confessed to killing her and relying on an acquaintance to dispose of her body. He has been charged with second-degree murder. (The lawsuit also alleges that Kytana’s father was a controlled informant for HPD’s Narcotics division.)

As of publication, neither Kytana’s nor Ariel’s remains have been recovered. And while both girls are suspected to have been already deceased by the time they were reported missing, Rego believes that HPD’s response still failed to meet the urgency required. “I cannot in good conscience claim this would have resulted in an arrest on the first day,” she told me. “I can say in good conscience that HPD would have been closer to the truth faster.”

According to Rego’s lawsuit, commanders across the Criminal Investigative Division, which houses her detail, began to retaliate against her. Rego’s supervisors wanted her investigated for “unauthorized computer access”—a Class C felony—for pulling the child’s case report. When nothing came of it, Rego’s detail was moved within the department, which Rego said removed her from the protection of her supervisor, who had stood up for her, doubled her workload, and effectively prevented her from taking on a career opportunity she’d secured to work in an FBI task force on violent crimes against children. Rego submitted complaints of retaliation and hostile work environment through internal mechanisms at HPD, which only attracted the ire of other commanders, the lawsuit alleges.

“The department is unable to comment on pending lawsuits,” Yoro, the HPD spokesperson, told me via email. Yoro did not respond to other detailed questions about how HPD handles missing children and about allegations of on-duty officers buying sex.

After Rego and several colleagues, including the supervisor who had defended her, spoke to the media about allegations in her lawsuit, they were reprimanded by HPD command and given a warning that future infractions would result in disciplinary action. Rego almost felt a sense of relief from the notice—the first communication she’s had with the department’s top brass since she left in March. “I feel validated,” she told me. “That’s the whole premise of what I’ve been trying to get across: Speak up … you get silenced.” 

Following Ariel’s disappearance as a civilian was torturous, but Rego’s experience with Kytana’s disappearance makes her doubt the department would have let her make any difference; for the most part, the same people are in charge. And these were high-profile incidents, with more resources and more attention than your average runaway. Her lawsuit, she says, is her last-ditch effort to contribute some small hope of change. “I cannot spend the next decade ignoring vulnerable children and young adults being dismissed as a low priority,” she said. “I just can’t do it.”