Iowa DHS striving for thoughtful improvements

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As the state examines the tragic deaths of two adopted teenagers, we want to assure Iowans that we’re committed to finding meaningful areas to address within the child welfare system, and within our community safety nets.

We’re doing this by engaging the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group (CWG) to conduct a broad review of the state system. And, we’re also doing this in partnership with legislators who are examining DHS resources and the state’s policies and practices meant to protect kids.

The DHS has engaged these experts following the tragic deaths of two 16-year-old girls who were adopted from state care. These cases have been heart-wrenching, unique and bring forward new questions about keeping children safe.

Our outside expert, CWG, is a nonprofit technical assistance organization that has been involved in child welfare reforms nationwide since 1996. It has conducted evaluations in more than two dozen states. In Iowa, the policy and practice group essentially will be looking for any system barriers so that we can target those areas for improvement. Together, we hope to make thoughtful proposals for improvements instead of knee-jerk changes that could put kids at risk or put additional pressures on front-line workers.

While much of the focus now is on this expert review, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the vast expertise and dedication of DHS workers. They come to work every day knowing they are the stewards of public trust, and they have a deep commitment to children and families. They juggle many duties and work within limited resources, and it’s important to remember they are not alone in the responsibility for protecting children.

Many Iowans must work together to prioritize child protection. That includes government administrators and legislators who set policy and appropriate resources, law enforcement and the courts who make critical decisions that affect child safety, community stakeholders who care about families, as well as school officials and neighbors who have a duty to report suspected abuse or neglect.

We witnessed a tremendous example of collaboration in the best interest of children and families June 5, when many of these groups came together to speak to a Legislative Oversight Committee. Law enforcement and the courts brought thoughtful reflections on how officials work together, and groups raised important questions about the emphasis on prevention and the responsibility for monitoring children who have been in state care.

Legislators listened to the complexities of how the child welfare system is intertwined with community safety nets and the justice system. They asked thoughtful questions about the resources that DHS needs to support its front-line workers, and what areas we might contemplate changes that can improve the lives of children. Many expressed support for the system review by the national expert, CWG.

Our hearts are heavy over the deaths of Natalie Finn and Sabrina Ray, and we are committed to closely examining our system and implementing changes to best protect children, and to give families the help they need to provide safe, stable homes. We want to do whatever we can to keep children from suffering at the hands of abusers who try to subvert the child protective system and our community safety nets.

By coming to the table to work together, DHS leaders, legislators and child welfare partners showed that they are committed to finding meaningful solutions following these tragic deaths.

• Wendy Rickman is administrator of adult, children and family services at the Iowa Department of Human Services

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