Iowa DHS director asks for time to reshape agency

'We're not a Jet Ski; we're an aircraft carrier'

Jerry Foxhoven, director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, speaks to reporters at the Capitol this week in Des Moines. He told a legislative committee Thursday that he’s directing a “bureaucracy beyond bureaucracy” where he’s trying to change the culture, which takes time. Democratic lawmakers pressed him, asking if DHS needed more workers, noting the department has 1,135 fewer employees than it had in 2010. (Rod Boshart/Gazette Des Moines Bureau)
Jerry Foxhoven, director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, speaks to reporters at the Capitol this week in Des Moines. He told a legislative committee Thursday that he’s directing a “bureaucracy beyond bureaucracy” where he’s trying to change the culture, which takes time. Democratic lawmakers pressed him, asking if DHS needed more workers, noting the department has 1,135 fewer employees than it had in 2010. (Rod Boshart/Gazette Des Moines Bureau)

DES MOINES — Iowa Department of Human Services Director Jerry Foxhoven told lawmakers Thursday he’s doing all he can to change direction at the agency — and its 4,000-plus employees — that he took charge of seven months ago.

Describing the agency that serves 1 million Iowans as a “bureaucracy beyond bureaucracy,” Foxhoven asked legislators for time to streamline processes and complete necessary changes.

“As I try to tell people, DHS is a pretty big organization, when you’re trying to change culture, when you’re trying to make a change — we’re not a Jet Ski,” Foxhoven told the House-Senate Government Oversight Committee “We’re an aircraft carrier. I’m trying to turn us into a pontoon boat, so we can more a little bit and be more agile.”

Foxhoven spent about 20 minutes defending the department that has been in the news for a variety of reasons, including the deaths of two teenage girls who allegedly were abused by their adoptive families after being removed from foster care and their schools.

Although generally upbeat, Foxhoven complained that news coverage has not presented a complete picture of the department and its strengths.

Referring to an outside review of DHS, he said there lots of positive things in this report, “but that’s apparently not news.”

In some cases, however, Rep. Vicki Lensing, D-Iowa City, told him, “We are only made aware when it hits the news.”

Among the good news in the review was the low turnover at DHS, Foxhoven said.

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While the national average turnover in child welfare is 20 percent, the rate at DHS has ranged from 3.4 percent to 8 percent over five years. Foxhoven attributed that to dedicated employees an appropriate salary schedule. DHS employees are well-paid, but not overpaid, he said.

However, committee Democrats weren’t convinced that things couldn’t be better. Citing a smaller staff and heavier caseloads, they repeatedly asked Foxhoven if he needed more resources.

Since 2010, the DHS staff has decreased by 1,135 employees, Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, said.

Last year, the department examined 37,840 children and adults for abuse and determined 36 percent of the cases were founded, he said. Fifty-six counties have no assigned child abuse investigator and caseloads for investigators range from 20 to 70.

“Those numbers to me indicate a system in crisis and a system that needs of resources,” McCoy said.

“Ultimately, you have the big job,” he said. “If you do the job honestly, you have to tell the Legislature what you need. That might mean ticking off the Governor’s Office and getting yourself fired. That would be OK if you’re doing the right thing for the kids of Iowa.”

Foxhoven indicated he’s attacking the situation with the resources he has. While one way to deal with heavy caseloads is to add staff, he’s looking at things caseworkers do and asking whether it’s necessary.

“There are a lot of things we do just because we always did it and no one ever let go of them,” Foxhoven said. By eliminating some of those things, “we can save time so they can do more.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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