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Longtime assault forensic examiner retires

Pediatrician ‘vital asset’ in prevention of child abuse, neglect

Dr. William Kepler takes a break in the Wailuku location used for forensic examinations of sexual assault victims. He retired this month after 31 years of doing forensic examinations of sexual assault victims in Maui County. The Maui News/LILA FUJIMOTO photo

After selling his pediatric practice 16 years ago, Dr. William Kepler is retiring again, this time from more than three decades of examining sexual assault victims in Maui County.

Kepler was the first doctor — and for years the only one — doing the forensic examinations that include interviewing patients, collecting DNA and documenting injuries for treatment and possible prosecution.

“Dr. Kepler has been an instrumental member of our community in the area of child abuse and neglect,” said Paul Tonnessen, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the Children’s Justice Center of Maui. “Throughout the years, his expertise in the area of child abuse and neglect has been a vital asset in our prevention efforts to help reduce child abuse and neglect in Maui County.

“His compassion and empathy towards the children who unfortunately have become victims of abuse through no fault of their own has played a major role in the beginning of the healing process.”

Kepler began doing the examinations in a small room in Maui Memorial Hospital in 1990. That year, Dr. Astrid Heger, a pediatrician famous for her work in child sexual abuse, came to Maui to teach the 11 pediatricians on the island to do the child sexual examinations.

As part of the development of child advocacy centers in the late 1980s, pediatricians across the country were trained to evaluate child sexual assault and conduct interviews with children and do physical examinations, Kepler said. He said the training helped spare children from undergoing multiple examinations and interviews by different people.

After Heger finished training the pediatricians and left, “most of them didn’t want to do the examinations, so I volunteered to do them all,” Kepler said.

“After a few months, it was clear from the police standpoint that the bigger need was for someone to examine adults, not just children,” he said. “So I agreed to do both.”

“As what we did progressed, our reports of sex assault did not increase. They stayed the same or gradually decreased,” Kepler said. “That was because of trying preventive measures.”

He said child sexual assault reports did increase, likely because of better reporting resulting from more education of teachers, police officers and others who would hear the reports from children.

Over the years, investigators also saw an increase in alcohol- and drug-related cases. “The biggest date rape drug is alcohol,” he said.

For about 15 years, Kepler was the only doctor in the county doing the examinations, covering Lanai and Molokai as well.

In addition to being on call to respond to cases four to five times a month, often in the middle of the night, he went to court to testify in some cases.

“For me, the most rewarding part is helping the victims, helping children and their families,” he said. “That’s always clear. But my involvement with most cases is pretty much at the beginning, when the child has just disclosed. I don’t have much involvement in the case after that unless it goes to court.”

“The other thing that’s been fulfilling is working with the team we have put together to do this.”

The sexual assault response team includes prosecutors, social workers and police detectives, including some who “stay on for years doing that work rather than other police work,” Kepler said.

In 2005, the year he retired from his pediatric practice, Kepler began training doctors to do the examinations with him “and share the load.”

“It became obvious that it was very hard to replace doctors when they left,” he said. “It was hard to get doctors to do that job.”

At the same time, across the country, sexual assault nurse examiners were doing more of the examinations to the point where now, “it’s pretty standard,” he said.

Kepler has helped build a team of advanced practice nurse practitioners who are now doing the examinations in the county. They are led by medical director Jennifer Baumstark, a certified nurse midwife with a doctorate of nurse practice and an instructor in the University of Hawaii Maui College nursing program.

“Because we have that, it allows me to fade away,” Kepler said.

After starting the program in the hospital room that was used for both examinations and interviews, the program is now settled in a recently remodeled location with separate examination and interview spaces near the hospital.

Although Kepler remains available for consultations, he officially retired Nov. 1 after doing hundreds of examinations over 31 years.

Kepler has testified as an expert witness in strangulation cases on Maui and Oahu.

He will continue to serve on a statewide multidisciplinary team advising Child Welfare Services in the most difficult child abuse cases.

He also has served on the board of the Friends of the Children’s Justice Center since 2006.

Kepler, who was born in Virginia, had parents and grandparents who were missionaries to China. As a child, he lived for two years in China, where there was electricity for only a few hours a week and the family used kerosene lamps.

“We didn’t have any hot water,” he said. “We did have running water.”

After the family had to leave the country when the communists took over, Kepler was raised in the Jim Crow South in North Carolina and Virginia where his father was a Presbyterian minister.

Kepler remembers separate drinking fountains, elevators and entrances to stores.

“My family was very liberal, extremely opposed to racial prejudice,” he said. “That made it difficult for us to live down there.”

Kepler and his wife, Lu, a nurse he met while training in Rochester, New York, decided to move to Maui in 1970 after he learned he wouldn’t be called into active duty in Vietnam as part of his service as a captain in the Army Reserve.

On Maui, he worked with Dr. Wolfgang Phaeltzer, who was a doctor for the plantation and in private practice, before becoming a solo practitioner.

“When I got to Maui, there were three pediatricians, including me,” Kepler said. “The island was very rural. We had two traffic lights on the island.

“We had no way of transporting sick babies to Honolulu. If the baby was not extremely critically ill, we could sometimes transport the baby in a little hand-held aluminum box with oxygen that was running through a little hole in the box.”

Over the next few years, he said a very sophisticated transport team was developed. “That was a major change in our handling of severely ill babies,” he said.

Outside of work, Kepler has sung with the Maui Madrigals for over 20 years and with a barbershop quartet for 13 years. He sings in the choir at Makawao Union Church.

When he and his wife arrived on Maui as newlyweds with no children, “we expected to stay a year or two and have fun,” Kepler said.

“We never left,” he said. “It’s been a wonderful, wonderful 51 years.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.

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