Iowa's child welfare system being hit by 'a perfect demographic storm'

Newcomers' share of the state will grow in coming years, panelists say

The Iowa Department of Human Services office in Anamosa. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
The Iowa Department of Human Services office in Anamosa. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

Even as Iowa makes early progress toward ensuring all its children's safety while respecting cultural differences, the state faces "a perfect demographic storm" in the form of new, younger arrivals.

"I've been astonished at the dynamics of demographic change we're seeing," Mark Grey, a University of Northern Iowa anthropology professor, said Friday morning.

About 200 Department of Human Services staff members and others involved in child welfare are in West Des Moines to review efforts to reduce the disproportionate number of minority children in foster care and other programs. Prompted in Cedar Rapids by local African American residents, the effort elsewhere involves Latin Americans and Asians, but is about to be challenged by what Grey called "micropluralities" of ethnic groups.

"Talking about race is no longer enough," said Michele Devlin, UNI professor of public health.

Devlin said the child welfare system must start thinking in terms of ethnicities -- Mexican, Honduran, and Guatemalan instead of simply "Latino"; Sudanese or African American instead of  "black."

While the white, native-born Iowan population grows older, the newcomers' share of the state will grow in coming decades. Grey projected just under 12 percent of the state will be Hispanic by 2040, but they'll be much more apparent in small areas - up to 45 percent in Marshall County.

They're joined by growing numbers of Asians, Pacific Islanders, and others. Many are refugees, but all are coming for the same reason: "they come here because we employ them," Grey said.

The stress of adapting to new culture will put many new arrivals' families in contact with the child welfare system.

"They come here, and in one generation we expect their children to completely and radically change their lives," said Grey. "That is a hell of a burden to put on a kid."

Through miscommunication across cultures, Devlin said some refugee children are misdiagnosed and medicated for attention-deficit disorder when they should be treated for post-traumatic stress.

"You've got legitimate issues going on that are very normal human reactions to the abnormal stresses of being a refugee," she said.

Despite three years' improvement, nearly a quarter of Linn County children in foster homes or other state supervision in 2011 were African American, according to DHS statistics. African Americans comprise about 4 percent of the county's population.

Statewide, just under 15 percent of children in state care last year were African American, down slightly from 2010, according to DHS spokesman Roger Munns.

The DHS is working with local African American volunteers and other service-providing agencies  to bring those numbers down. It's going to take more than simply state caseworkers and school counselors, said Dave Loy, director for the Partnership for Safe Families.

"People still I think have the idea that the child welfare system is the DHS," said Loy. "It is so much broader than that, and they’re all coming together."

One change adopted last year: a meeting between parents and DHS within 24 hours of a child's removal from home. The "post-removal conferences" help speed a child's return to parental custody.

"One of the things that we see is the engagement of the families" through the meetings, Loy said.

"I would take my hat off to them," said Latasha Massey, community projects coordinator for Johnson County Social Services. "They have been consistently working on this. It’s not one of those things where you hear 'we’re going to do a training (day) on diversity.' They really have some people that are pushing from the top down."

"We’re still working out the kinks of, is this child in danger? Is this mom being aggressive, or is she just protecting her kid?" said Massey. "Now we’re able to send that kid to a relative, how do we support that relative? It’s really hard to see institutional change, (but) they have taken that on."

Devlin said those are today's meeting are dealing with issues the federal government doesn't even know exists."Very often we encounter federal policies and federal funders who assume that Iowa is all white," she said. "We've actually been told, 'you don't have minorities in Iowa.' We're small. We don't have the numbers in Iowa, but we have the percentages."

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.