"I thought it would be all cleared up in a day or two"

Anne Bendixen remembers she was doing laundry when police knocked on her Iowa City door on Dec. 1, 2009.

They had a warrant to search for child pornography.

Some old photos had been found on a computer Bendixen shared at work. They showed her son and daughter, 9 and 10 when the photos were taken, playing in the bathtub.

Bendixen sat on the front porch, waiting as police officers packed up box after box of photos and old videotapes for evidence. An Iowa Department of Human Services child abuse investigator pulled up. He went inside.

“The home was in complete disarray,” he later would write in a report. “There was so much garbage, debris and clutter that it could not all be written and documented.”

Bendixen learned her children, then 10 and 11, wouldn’t be coming home that night. They’d been picked up at school and taken to a youth shelter.

Still, she didn’t panic. “I thought it would all be cleared up within a day or two,” she said, “because I hadn’t done anything wrong.”

Police dropped their investigation once it became clear that Bendixen didn’t intend anything sexual by taking the photographs. She never was charged with a crime.

Clearing her name with DHS would be another matter entirely. It took a year and a half for her son to come home after her children were placed in foster care. Her daughter still hasn’t returned.

Bendixen couldn’t have known that in December 2009. She went right to work getting the house in order — the one allegation she could do something about. Photographs show that within a week, the home was spotless.

In the DHS investigator’s Dec. 31, 2009, assessment, he wrote that the house was unfit for habitation. He felt that the bathtub photos were “overly sexual” and that Bendixen must have taken them for sexual reasons. Therefore, he determined that allegations of sexual abuse against Bendixen were founded.

“The family is motivated to stay together,” he wrote. Even though he noted that Anne’s son was struggling at the shelter — his behavior becoming progressively more troubling — at least the children weren’t, he wrote, “vulnerable anymore to Ms. Bendixen’s proclivity to sexual boundary issues.”

Bendixen wanted her kids back. When the agency declined to set any clear benchmarks or goals, preferring vague directives such as “Anne will set clear boundaries for her family,” she created her own action steps and completed them.

She joined a hoarding support group and regularly met with a therapist. She passed a city inspection and gave each of her kids, who had shared a bedroom before, their own rooms.

“I just said, over and over, ‘What do you want me to do? Tell me what you want, and I’ll do it,’ ” Bendixen says.

When a psychosocial evaluation found she posed no risk to her children, Bendixen still couldn’t get her kids back — despite the evaluator’s strong recommendation that the children be returned.

“I am concerned about the Bendixen children and their potential harm from being removed from their home, as well as having their mother labeled a sexual offender,” the evaluator wrote in that Feb. 25, 2010, report. She recommended DHS reverse the finding of sexual abuse.

Instead, the agency ordered a follow-up screening, asking the evaluator to take a look at the pictures before making a judgment. She did, writing: “My belief that there is no abuse in intent or in fact is stronger after viewing the photographs.”

Still, no return.

During the next few months, Bendixen’s daughter would start acting out in foster care. She’d be separated from her brother, moved to a shelter and then to another home — and forced to change schools.

Bendixen’s visits with her children became tense; sometimes they wouldn’t even want to see her. That was the new reason Bendixen’s caseworker gave when, in October 2010, she continued to recommend against returning the children.

Eventually, both children moved in with their father in Colorado.

Then, for reasons as unclear as the continued removal, DHS allowed Bendixen’s son to return home last summer. Her daughter visited over Christmas. By all accounts, things are going well.

Two years after her family was torn apart, the pieces slowly are being stitched back together.

Two years.Comments: (319) 339-3154;

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