116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Breanne French had been caring for the baby boy, whose bloodcurdling screaming fits finally had started to dissipate, for nine months when the Iowa Department of Human Services gave him back to his birth mother.
The 11-month-old child had spent most of his life in one of two places: with Breanne, a licensed foster parent, and in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at UnityPoint Health-St. Luke's Hospital in Cedar Rapids. His birth mother was in a rehabilitation facility for heroin use when she went into labor, and for the first two months of his life, doctors and nurses were weaning him off the drug.
French's life with the boy, Nicolas, began in 2014. When her phone rang a few days before Christmas of that year, Breanne had no way of knowing if she would get the child, Nicolas, in her care for days or for months. Foster parents, who care for the thousands of children in Iowa's foster care system, hardly ever have that information.
'Of course, when you get the phone call you have no idea if it's going to be temporary, or if it's going to be long-term, if it's going to go to adoption — you never know,' Breanne said. 'It was literally day by day at that point.'
What foster parents do know — what nearly everyone they encounter in the foster care system, from the local trainer who teaches their certification courses to social workers to officials at the top of the department, emphasize over and over — is that they are not the state's first choice as a permanent home for a foster child.
'There's this misnomer that it's foster care to adoption,' said Theresa Lewis, the regional director of Four Oaks, which facilitates trainings for foster parents in Eastern Iowa. 'We have to do some backtracking with families to make sure they really understand the department's philosophy and the department's goals. … The system has changed, too, so if people are thinking about how foster care used to be when they were a kid, it's really different now.
'The role of all states is really to help kids get back to their families because that's where they should be.'
Max Freund / The Gazette
According to data from the U.S. Department of Human Services, more than 9,800 children were served by the foster care system in Iowa in fiscal year 2015. Of those children, only about 7 percent had parents whose rights had been terminated and were awaiting adoption.
When children are removed from a parent or guardian, in most cases — 65 percent — it's because the adults are found to have denied them critical care, such as adequate food, a safe place to sleep or proper supervision.
A family comes under the scrutiny of the department when a report is made through the department's child abuse hotline, at 1-800-362-2178, with concerns about a child's well-being. In 2016, more than 50,000 allegations of abuse were reported, according to the department.
Alexandra Olsen / The Gazette
Of those reports, 52 percent — 26,045 of them — met criteria required to open an assessment. That often happens if a child was subjected to one or more of the 11 types of abuse defined by Iowa legislators.
Those types are:
1. Physical abuse
2. Mental injury
3. Sexual abuse
4. Denial of critical care
5. Child prostitution
6. Presence of illegal drugs in a child's body
7. Manufacturing or possession of a dangerous substance
8. Bestiality in the presence of a minor
9. Allowed access by a registered sex offender
10. Allowed access to obscene material
11. Child sex trafficking.
Of these more than 26,000 cases, about 42 percent were placed on the family assessment pathway. Those include cases that involve allegations of denial of critical care, but lack imminent danger for the child.
'Our job is really to be a family center and a child-driven system because whenever you can keep the kids with their parents, that's what you want to do,' said Wendy Rickman, the department's division administrator for adult, children and family services. 'We provide a lot of services that go in the home and wrap around the family of the children, to really address the issues that destabilize a family.'
From the original 50,000 allegations reported in 2016, about 15,100 of those cases were then assigned to a social worker, who completed a child abuse assessment. In 2016, social workers determined 6,368 reports of abuse were founded, which means there was a preponderance of evidence — a lower bar than prosecutors would need to reach in criminal court — that abuse occurred.
And of these cases, 65 percent were for denial of critical care, 20 percent were for physical abuse, 7 percent were for sexual abuse and 7 percent were for a presence of illegal drugs in a child's body, possession or manufacturing of drugs.
Amount of children per year (entry)
Alexandra Olsen / The Gazette
Ideally, for the state, when a case ends and the child is officially out of the system, it places a child back with a birth parent. In some cases, a child abuse assessment doesn't even result in the removal of a child from a parent's home, as the department works with a parent to meet mandated goals.
When Leah Kirk's newborn son tested positive for THC, a chemical component found in cannabis, he was never removed from her care because the levels of the drug found in his blood were so low. But Kirk, who had had run-ins with state social workers before, said she 'did double' of what state workers required of her almost two years ago.
'I did everything they wanted me to do because I was in my right mind,' Kirk said this past August. 'I knew they could take him.'
It wasn't Kirk's first interaction with foster care workers. Years ago, when she was 17 and gave birth to a baby girl, the department kept her from taking her daughter home from the hospital.
'I did not do anything I was supposed to when I was pregnant,' Kirk said. 'I used drugs, I drank. You name it, I probably did it when I was 17.'
Alexandra Olsen / The Gazette
Kirk's mother, though, was allowed to take the baby home. Four months later, Kirk said she still was drinking and using drugs. She signed away her parental rights, and her mother received custody of the girl.
'In my head, I thought if I signed my rights over to my mom, I could then get my stuff together and my mom would just give her back,' she said. 'Ten years later is when I got my stuff together.'
So when state social workers came back into her life, Kirk said it took her back to those feelings of she had had as a teenager. But this time, she said she welcomed the help that her social worker and a worker from another provider who focused on Family Safety, Risk and Permanency, or FSRP, gave her. Kirk's case closed in a quick four and a half months.
'I don't think I was heading on the wrong path, but I dibbled and dabbled here and there,' she said. 'And it opened my eyes so I would never dibble and dabble again.'
FSRP workers get involved with children and families who have an open child-welfare service case, which happens after a child abuse assessment. They help parents as they work toward permanently reunifying them with their child, which can mean looking for stable employment, acquiring health insurance or getting sober.
The workers are meant to carry out the department's goal of preserving family units and preventing further child abuse — and therefore preventing further intervention by the department.
'I've been in this business 30 years. I could count on probably two fingers the number of parents who don't love their kids,' the department's Rickman said. 'Most parents, when they do have abuse happening in their home, it's not because they don't love their kids.
It's because they lack parenting skills or they lack self-discipline or there's a substance abuse problem.
'We really try to address those types of issues to keep families together whenever possible.'
Max Freund / The Gazette
While Nicolas continued to live with Breanne, his birth mother was working toward sobriety as summer turned to fall and his first birthday neared.
Breanne, her parents, Ron and Karen French, were now done injecting the baby with the methadone treatments that came in black-light-protective bags marked with yellow tape. He no longer screamed so incessantly from withdrawal pain — sounding, Breanne's father Ron French said, almost like a screeching pterodactyl — that his face turned purple from a lack of oxygen.
For children younger than three, the department often recommends proceeding with termination of parental rights after six months. In this case, it had been nine.
As the year dragged on, Breanne started to grow impatient. If Nicolas's birthparents' rights were going to be terminated, she wanted to adopt him.
'Given his situation, there was extension after extension. There was a lot of confrontation with me and DHS,' Breanne said. 'Because, if you want your kid back, you do everything you're supposed to do to get your child back. I would move heaven and earth if it were my child.'
Then, in August, she received word — the department was moving Nicolas back to live with his birth mother. Although Nicolas had been living with Breanne for more than four-fifths of his life, as a foster parent, she had no rights to keep him. He left a month before his first birthday.
'I was so frustrated, and I cried,' recalled Ron French, who, like his wife and daughter, had begun to think of Nicolas as family. Over and over, he said he was told the mission of the department is 'reunification with the original family.'
Eventually, it grew tiresome.
'Oh, my God, you've got to be kidding me. You've got a mom that's you-know, and a dad that's this,' Ron said, referencing suspected criminal activities and trailing off. 'And you're telling me you're trying to put a child back into it?'
It would be nearly 10 months before Nicholas found his way back to the family.