When little Shelby Duis was found dead at her Spirit Lake home — with massive head injuries, fractured ribs and two broken hands — it sent a shock through the entire state.
Neighbors and day-care workers had warned child protective workers for nearly a year before the 2-year-old’s January 2000 death that the girl was being abused.
Then, later that same year, an Oskaloosa man came forward to say that he’d told officials for months his 23-month-old son was being mistreated by his estranged wife and her boyfriend before the boy was hospitalized with critical brain and spinal injuries.
Iowans demanded to know why the Iowa Department of Human Services didn’t protect these vulnerable children — why child protective workers had allowed them to remain in such dangerous environments.
Then-Gov. Tom Vilsack ordered DHS to adopt a “remove-first” policy — to remove a child from a home even before they’d determined whether reports of abuse were true.
“The watch phrase will be — when there is a doubt, work to take the child out,” he announced.
That philosophy persists today.
But most of Iowa’s removal cases don’t involve physical or sexual abuse; rather, they’re largely “denial of critical care” — a catchall category that can include everything from bad housekeeping to poor supervision.
Cedar Rapids-based therapist Virgil Gooding, a member of the African American Family Preservation and Resource Committee who has worked with DHS for decades, says the agency’s “culture of caution” unfairly places the burden of proof on parents — with often tragic results.
Even as other states have implemented reforms that have dramatically, and safely, reduced the numbers of children placed in foster care while supporting parents’ efforts to provide better home environments, Iowa continues to remove children from their families at an alarming rate.
When you adjust for poverty, only three states remove children from parental custody at rates higher than Iowa, according to Richard Wexler, Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.
“There are so many ways out there to do better,” he said. “But Iowa hasn’t even tried.”
Wexler’s research shows that Iowa removes children at more than twice the national average when poverty rates are factored in — four times the rate of neighboring Illinois, where reforms have improved child safety while keeping more families intact.
For months, I’ve been talking with Iowans about their experiences with Iowa DHS. A few have agreed to share their stories in the hopes that it will shed light on a child protective system that wields tremendous power and operates largely out of public view.
In the coming weeks, you’ll hear from a dad who lost all rights to his daughter even though he was never accused of abuse. From a mom who couldn’t get her children back for a year, even though two separate DHS-ordered evaluations found that she posed no threat to her kids. From a grandma who divorced her husband and evicted her high-school-aged son in the vain hope of keeping her grandchildren out of the system.
Just a few of the heartbroken Iowans who have seen up close how Iowa’s “remove-first” system sometimes sacrifices families in the name of protecting kids.
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