A plan for protecting kids

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We’re all gripped by horrific headlines when child protective workers fail to stop abuse of a child.

But a much quieter tragedy takes place in our state every day: Families needlessly torn apart and kept apart by aggressive Iowa Department of Human Services removal practices.

In my last three columns, I’ve described three families’ experiences with Iowa child protective services — which removes children from their families at one of the highest rates in the country.

They are just examples — stories I’ve vetted and reported — of the dozens I’ve heard about Iowa placing children in foster care not because they had been abused, but because DHS workers wanted to ward off some potential future harm.

Nationally, the number of children in foster care dropped more than 20 percent from 2002-10, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services figures. But in Iowa, the trend is reversed — the number of our children in foster care actually rose 25 percent in that same time.

Other states have enacted humane reforms that shift focus and more resources to family preservation — slashing foster home placements, reducing the average length of foster care stays while measurably improving child safety.

In Iowa, child abuse investigators still are told to evaluate a child’s “safety” based either on “immediate, significant, and clearly observed maltreatment” or “a foreseeable state of danger in which family behaviors, attitudes, motives, emotions, or the child’s physical environment pose a threat of maltreatment.”

Officials from the non-profit Center for the Study of Social Policy that studied the Linn County DHS called it a “culture of caution” that fails to distinguish between a child who is being hurt and a child who may be at some future risk for harm.

And it’s the biggest of all the concerns I’ve identified in a year of talking to Iowa families about the state’s child protective system.

Iowa needs to get serious about complying with federal laws requiring relative foster care placement and adoption. We must increase transparency and oversight to weed out social workers and investigators who aren’t properly doing their jobs.

We must do more to engage parents and make sure they aren’t steamrollered by a confusing and emotional process. We must measure whether DHS involvement actually has improved the well-being of a family or a child.

But more than anything, we must develop clear standards for child removal when danger is imminent, and a robust, evidence-based system of protective services to prevent neglect and abuse — and removal — when it’s not.

“If we’re removing kids on the basis of risk, that’s just not acceptable,” says Lisa D’Aunno, director of the National Resource Center for In-Home Services at the University of Iowa School of Social Work.

Removing a child from his or her family is a traumatic event — even if it’s only for a short time.

Sometimes that’s necessary. Often, it’s not — as other states have shown.

Correcting the problem means more than shifting the way we think about child safety. It means reallocating child protection resources to help give families the resources they need to stay together.

Take states like Illinois, which saw child safety improve even as foster caseloads plummeted after they shifted a payment structure that used to reward partners for keeping kids in foster care to one that incentivizes family preservation. Or Colorado and Minnesota, where some counties have retrained social workers to look for underlying issues of poverty that are the source of family stress — and help families address those issues — instead of plugging them into cookie-cutter services.

Iowa has a chance to do the same: Last fall, President Barack Obama signed a bill that will allow some states to use federal foster care funds for child abuse prevention and family preservation — removing a significant barrier to implementing proven family preservation programs that, if other states’ experiences hold true, could safely cut Iowa’s foster care caseload in half — while doing a better job than we are now of making children safe.

Iowa DHS officials played coy when I asked if they planned on applying for the waiver. They should.

Every child deserves to be safe, and they also deserve a family.

Comments: (319) 339-3154; jennifer.hemmingsen@sourcemedia.net

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