Differential response bill would keep more kids safe at home

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State legislators soon will have a chance to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to family values. A House bill passed committee last week that would keep more Iowa families together while keeping children safe.

Eight of every 10 substantiated reports of child maltreatment in Iowa are cases of “denial of critical care” — a catchall category that can include medical neglect, failure to provide adequate food or shelter or other care necessary to the child’s health and well being.

Passing HF 415 will help keep kids from being unnecessarily removed from their families, and make sure caregivers won’t be labeled child abusers when they’re really just struggling to provide resources for their families, the bipartisan bill’s co-sponsor, Assistant Majority Leader Rep. Joel Fry (R-Osceola), told me this week.

The way the law is now, when the Department of Human Services receives a report of possible child abuse or neglect, they open an investigation. HF 415 would create a second option, a “Family Assessment Response,” when a child is not in imminent danger.

Under that second track, child protection workers would work cooperatively with families, connecting them with services and resources to better provide for the child. This dual-track system is commonly called “differential response” and it’s used in about half the states in the country.

“Under differential response, you don’t come into the system as a suspect,” as expert Joel Rosch, Senior Research Scholar and Policy Liaison for the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University, has said. Or, as Fry, a foster dad and a social worker, put it to me last week: “We’re setting them up to be successful.”

For nearly a year now, at legislators’ request, an Iowa work group has been studying the idea, and its findings are nothing but positive:

It found that not only did FARs keep children as safe as traditional approaches do, they reduced foster care placements and re-referrals for child abuse and neglect, especially among poor and minority families. It found that FARs created a greater community understanding of families’ needs, and communities stepped up — helping families access housing, food, transportation and other resources.

Families and child protection workers said they liked the collaborative family assessment response approach. It costs about the same as a traditional investigative approaches. There really is no downside.

And the benefits to keeping more Iowa kids safe at home are incalculable: For the children, their families and our communities as a whole.

Foster care can be a lifesaving intervention, but removing a child from his or her family is a traumatic event that can echo for generations. It should be a last resort.

By passing HF 415, legislators have a chance to show their concern for children and their respect for Iowa families.

They have a chance to make a change that will improve the lives of children now, and for generations to come.

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

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