CEDAR RAPIDS — To be successful in protecting the state’s children, Iowans need to focus more on preventing child abuse and childhood trauma instead of just dealing with it after the fact, panelists said during a session of The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas conference Thursday.
That may seem obvious, said Iowa Department of Human Services Director Jerry Foxhoven, but it’s not historically how the government has approached and provided funding for problems such as child abuse.
“Historically, we’ve been good at funding programs after kids are removed from their homes, but not good at funding prevention,” he said. “It’s like spending all our money on fire trucks and none on smoke alarms.”
That model is changing, he said, from the federal level on down.
“New legislation is coming that’s going to fundamentally redesign how we approach child welfare,” he said.
In February, President Donald Trump signed a spending bill that included a new law, the Family First Prevention Services Act, which overhauls the American foster care system, putting more money toward parenting classes, mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment, among other changes. One of the aims is to keep more families together. The federal government will release compliance guidelines in October.
For that law and other efforts to be successful at protecting children, panelists said more than just funding is needed. Foxhoven was joined by state Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha; Okpara Rice, CEO of Tanager Place; Liz Cox, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Iowa; and Regina Butteris, medical director of UnityPoint St. Luke’s Child Protection Center.
It truly takes a village to watch out for children, th panelists agreed, with collaboration needed between educators, health care providers, social workers, mental health advocates and law enforcement.
It’s important for people to know what to look for to identify abuse, Rice said, and also for interventions to be available to help those children and their families.
Helping children proactively can lead to savings down the road, Mathis said, by leading them to be contributing members of society and keeping them out of state systems like prison.
Foxhoven jumped in to add that “savings” doesn’t necessarily refer to dollars — it’s about saving lives.
Another hot-button issue in protecting children in Iowa relates to children’s mental health. It’s a long-standing issue in the state; Foxhoven mentioned being on a task force 35 years ago charged with creating a children’s mental health system in Iowa.
“We still don’t have one,” he said. “But I’m hopeful we will now. The goal is to do what was done on the adult mental health system last year for the children’s system this year.”
He co-chairs the Children’s System State Board, created by Gov. Kim Reynolds to develop a strategic plan for a new children’s mental health system. They are planning listening posts at Area Education Associations around the state, he said, to hear from people on the ground about what is needed.
That’s all to the good, Cox said.
“It’s important to remember child abuse is personal. It happens in the home, not in the statehouse,” she said.
The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas conference, in its second year, consists of in-depth, solutions-focused journalism and events, including panel discussions on a variety of issues affecting Iowa. The conference continues Friday at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cedar Rapids Convention Complex.
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