Real action is needed to curb abuse in foster care

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Imagine for a moment how Iowa officials would respond had two horrifying child abuse cases come to light over just a few months, both involving children harmed by their parents, even after repeated warnings to authorities.

There would be a rush to scapegoat any and all efforts to keep families together. Politicians would race to outdo each other in demanding that the Department of Human Services take more children from their homes.

In fact, two horrifying cases of child abuse in Iowa — the torture of Malayia Knapp and the death of Natalie Finn — really have come to light in recent months. But what they have in common is very different: The alleged abusers adopted the children from foster care.

Yet politicians such as Sen. Matt McCoy are content to cough up the usual clichés about an overburdened system and children “falling through the cracks.” They have avoided looking at the problem at the root of all the others: Iowa takes away far too many children needlessly. That’s why the system is overburdened and that’s why children fall through the cracks.

For nearly two decades Iowa has been an extreme outlier when it comes to tearing apart families and consigning children to the chaos of foster care. In recent years, Iowa slowly reduced the number of children it takes away. And the standard federal measure for child safety, the rate at which children known-to-the-system are re-abused, has improved.

But in 2015, Iowa still tore apart families at the 12th highest rate in the nation; eighth highest when rates of child poverty are factored in. Iowa took children at a rate at least triple the rate of Illinois. But it’s Illinois where independent court-appointed monitors found that reducing foster care improved child safety.

So either Iowa is a cesspool of depravity, with at least three times more child abuse than Illinois, or Iowa is taking too many children.

This does enormous harm to the children needlessly taken; often when family poverty is confused with “neglect.” Such cases are far more common than the horror stories. Other cases fall between the extremes. These are cases like those cited in a highly-critical evaluation of Linn County child welfare done by the Center for the Study of Social Policy in 2011.

Two massive studies of more than 15,000 typical cases found that children left in their own homes typically fare better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

It is this obscene rate of removal that so overloads the system that workers have less time to investigate any case carefully. So they actually are less likely to find the relatively few children who really do need to be taken from their homes.

And they are more likely to overlook abuse in foster care.

The fact that two horrible cases allegedly involve foster parents does not prove anything about the safety of foster care. What proves there is a problem is the fact that one independent research study after another finds abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes (and the rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is worse).

Sen. McCoy tells us he’s concerned about the vetting of foster and adoptive parents. But the more you overload the system, the more child welfare agencies become desperate to find places for the children. That increases the chances that they will lower standards for foster and adoptive parents and ignore evidence of abuse in foster care.

The testimony of Melayia Knapp brought people to tears. But tears are not enough. Nothing will really change until Iowa finally faces up to the fact that it’s needless removal of children that drives everything else.

• Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. More information: www.nccpr.org

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