Ige should make Children and Youth Day a state event

Kris Coffield and Jeanné Kapela

To promote the well-being of Hawai’i's most precious resource, Gov. David Ige should declare Children and Youth Day a state event.

That resource is our keiki themselves, along with the families responsible for their care. Over 300,000 children live in the islands, according to the latest U.S. Census figures, 13 percent of whom live in poverty. These children deserve a chance to develop the kind of healthy bodies, minds and relationships supported by each of Children and Youth Day’s 300 sponsors.

Yet, this year, the state’s largest family happening is facing unprecedented scrutiny. Citing laws prohibiting state officials from using government resources to plan private affairs, State Ethics Commission Chair Les Kondo is challenging Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland’s role in facilitating the celebration, saying that employment of the senator’s office and staff in coordinating Children and Youth Day violates the state ethics code.

Kondo further objects to Sen. Chun Oakland’s representation of the day as a state event on permitting applications, suggesting that the mistake puts taxpayers on the hook for liability claims if someone gets injured on Capitol grounds. While a state law enacted in 1994 annually recognizes the first Sunday in October as Children and Youth Day, the ethics chair contends that the statute, itself, does not make the day an official state event in the absence of a formal declaration from the governor.

Owing to Kondo’s criticism, several last-minute changes are being made to Children and Youth Day, including storage of “keiki goodie bags” at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, removal of the state seal from promotional materials, and assumption of liability coverage by Kiwanis International. Though these adjustments will allow the event to move forward, participants may bear the cost of revising their own resources and purchasing liability insurance, no small burden for small, cash-strapped nonprofits.

Moreover, failing to designate Children and Youth Day as a state event erodes our government’s commitment to families. When the law establishing Children and Youth Day was amended in 2012 to explicitly permit use of the Capitol grounds, the Senate Human Services Committee said in a committee report that the day, “encourages, supports, and promotes educating and strengthening families, involving citizens in public policy development, promoting access to the legislative process, and informing legislators of the issues and challenges facing Hawaii’s children and youth.”

Those findings were later echoed by the Ways and Means Committee, chaired by then-senator David Ige. As one of the state’s chief fiscal custodians, Ige undoubtedly reviewed the numbers showcasing the event’s success: 40,000 attendees enjoying over 150 activities and engaging with hundreds of organizations about early learning, childhood nutrition, abuse prevention, and more.

For impoverished guests, Children and Youth Day may be a rare opportunity to partake in free food and entertainment. On O’ahu, the latest homeless count tallied 556 households with 2,340 adults and children, including 1,319 under the age of 18. As Gov. Ige reflects on how best to house our most vulnerable population, he should also support programming that broadens policy talks by connecting public leaders with those they serve.

It’s often said that it takes a village to raise a child. If that’s true, then our governor should bring our island villages together by giving Children and Youth Day the government’s backing. With less than five weeks remaining before the celebration is set to occur, the most ethical thing to do is to grant the event state status.

Kris Coffield is the Executive Director of IMUAlliance, a nonpartisan political advocacy organization devoted to advancing human rights, socioeconomic equality, and educational opportunity.

Jeanné Kapela is Miss Hawai’i 2015 and President of UNITE, a nonprofit dedicated to ending sexual exploitation through education.