Human services in Iowa stressed beyond capacity

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Iowans are alarmed by recent news reports regarding the starvation deaths of Natalie Finn, Sabrina Ray, and the long-term physical and mental abuse of Malayia Knapp, who survived her abuse by running away from her adoptive parents.

In all three of these cases, the girls were adopted out of foster care. Each was considered a “special needs” child. Special needs can relate to a physical or mental diagnosis or simply a case where there are multiple siblings that are trying to stay together. It also can include a child who is a minority and wants to be placed with someone who shares their ethnic background. All three of these cases involved children who were home-schooled with no reporting to the school district. Fostered, adopted as special needs (which included taxpayer-funded monthly subsidies), pulled from public school to be home-schooled, and then abused. All three cases had the same path.

Through my independent review, I have learned there are several significant problems at DHS. Here are my findings:

• There are 1,135 fewer employees at DHS today since the Branstad-Reynolds administration assumed office in 2010, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Service Bureau. That means fewer state employees protecting our children.

• The caseload for child protection workers is very high. More than 50,086 calls were received by the DHS abuse hotline last year. Of those, 25,952 were complaints of abuse that were accepted for on-site assessment. In total, 37,840 children and adults were assessed for abuse in 2016, and 36 percent yielded a finding of abuse, which meant there was a need for child welfare intervention.

• DHS has claimed its field investigator caseloads are within national averages. This is data manipulation. DHS has 182 people at the investigator, or Social Worker 3, level for statewide child protection services. In Polk, the state’s largest county, there are 28. Fifty-six counties have zero investigators living in the county they are assigned to investigate. A rural investigator might have a territory that spans up to five counties, with driving time covering hundreds of square miles. Many urban investigators have said their caseloads are critically high. When caseloads expand at this rate, more overtime is required.

• In 2016, 156 child protection workers collected more than $5,000 in overtime, and 10 of those earned more than $20,000, according to DHS data. In 2015, one social worker earned more than $40,000 a year in overtime pay. This means he or she worked more than 60 hours per week on average. It is easy to imagine how children can fall through the cracks, given the overworking of caseworkers.

• In 2016, the turnover rate for a Social Worker 3 was nearly 8 percent and the turnover rate for Social Worker 2 was 12.5 percent, according to DHS. This indicates a system that is stressed beyond capacity.

You can imagine my surprise when I saw the governor’s budget, which cut more than $24 million from DHS in fiscal 2018. I was shocked when I saw that more than $8 million was reduced from field services. Field services are matched with federal money, which means they will see a $16 million cut. When all the cuts were added, DHS had $124 million less in fiscal 2017 than in fiscal 2016. This trend continues in fiscal 2018.

Protecting children should not be a partisan issue. Iowa leaders simply must find the resources to adequately fund child protective services. Iowa leaders have the ability to make this a priority. The question is: Do they have the will?

• Sen. Matt McCoy is a Democrat from Des Moines and ranking member of the Government Oversight Committee

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