116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
When children like Nicolas are removed from their birth families, the Iowa Department of Human Services often places them with adults who are, to the children, little more than strangers.
But by the time a child is given to licensed foster parents, state agents have spent months digging into their pasts. They've been inside their homes. They know if parents are interested in having a child to help with household chores, if they've had difficulty becoming pregnant, even how many hours of sleep they get a night.
The state knows if a foster parent is willing to take care of a child who physically attacks others, has poor hygiene or is quiet and withdrawn. It knows if a parent prefers a girl or a boy, a child of a certain race or of a certain age.
Alexandra Olsen / The Gazette
And it attempts to get a full picture of the potential foster parent's past through state and federal criminal records, child abuse registries and sex offender registries.
'It's pretty intense for the families to know that their whole life, if they've done anything at all, it … could come to light,' said Theresa Lewis, an official at Four Oaks, which trains foster families in its 17-county coverage area, which includes Cedar Rapids. 'For our (checks), nothing ever drops off. Even if it was a DUI 25 years ago, it needs to be evaluated.
'Sometimes people get really, really anxious about that. If they have things in their past and they've moved on, it's still going to be there.'
By the time potential foster parents have workers at Four Oaks looking into their pasts, they've also already been through 30 hours of foster parent training. The state's Department of Human Services contracts with Four Oaks to facilitate training and to provide other services to foster parents in Eastern Iowa.
Alexandra Olsen / The Gazette
Four Oaks trains foster parents in a 17-county area that includes Cedar Rapids. Charts were made using demographics of foster families in that region — which includes Tama, Benton, Linn, Jones, Jasper, Poweshiek, Iowa, Johnson, Mahaska, Keokuk, Washington, Monroe, Wapello, Jefferson, Appanoose, Davis and Van Buren counties.
Getting licensed to care for foster children essentially meant telling the state 'everything going in our lives,' said Natalie Cook, who became licensed in 2015. She and her husband, Tony, said the 'pressure to do everything right' persisted after their licensure was completed as social workers could stop by unannounced once a year.
Adopting a child was something Natalie, 30, always had wanted to do. She doesn't remember why, but when she would 'play house' growing up, she had a family made up of birth and adopted children.
She said she thought being a foster parent would lead to an adoption. But early on, training classes at Four Oaks emphasized that adoption was far from the department's first priority for foster children.
Alexandra Olsen / The Gazette
The Cooks, who already had two daughters, were among the many foster parents who start out seeking only to adopt but change their minds as they learn more about foster care's mission.
'It was so eye-opening how much there is a need for foster parents to support the birth family,' Natalie said. 'It just became clear to us that they really needed people to support them, and not just take kids away from them. I'm not saying most foster parents think like that at all — I think most foster parents have good hearts.'
Soon, one-year-old twin boys, Zane and Zion, were placed with the Cooks. While Natalie and Tony said they tried to 'guard their hearts' as they knew the boys could be moved, their daughters, then 3 and 5, quickly became attached.
'When we first got them, they were babies, so the girls' favorite things was to hold them and feed them,' Tony, 29, said.
The boys' birth mother had regular visits with them. But after six months of Zane and Zion being with the Cooks, there was a termination of parental-rights trial.
The boys had never lived with their birth mother, Natalie said, and had been in another foster home before theirs.
Natalie said a social worker told her a decision about parental rights would come within 45 days. Instead, it dragged on for nine months.
'I knew going into foster care, it's going to be highly emotional, we're going to get so attached, but once we were in it — it was just so much waiting,' Natalie said. 'I felt every emotion.'
She was frustrated with the bureaucracy of the system. She was sad for the boys' birth mother, who was grappling with what seemed like an inevitable termination decision. There was hope her family wouldn't change, and fear that it would.
When parental rights eventually were terminated, she let her guard down. But then, she said she felt blindsided as Zane and Zion got new state social workers who oversee children who are up for adoption.
'It went to the adoption unit, and it was, 'Well, we're going to explore this and see,'' Natalie recalled. 'That was terrifying.'
Fostering a child often does increase the likelihood of adoption, adoption specialist Brianne Arends said. State social workers consider foster parents as permanent placements for foster children if their parent's rights are terminated — but only after they rule out a placement with a relative or with siblings who could be placed elsewhere.
'Foster parents know if the birth family is on target to get the kids back or not,' Arends said. 'If they see that they're not, obviously they start to think about Plan B. … (But) per code, I have to look at sibling relationships. Per policy, I have to consider relatives.
'That's not saying that I always choose the relative or that the adoption unit would always choose a relative over a foster parent, but you also can't downplay the benefit of that relative relationship.'
The Cooks eventually were allowed to adopt the boys. They let their foster parent license lapse, and Natalie said they are 'just enjoying being a family, and not having DHS in our house all the time.
'You hear all the horror stories, and that stuff is hard. I think that I definitely understand why people think the system is so broken — because it really is. It's just messed up, it takes forever, it's not fair to the kids. However, when I have stopped to think about what could make it better or work differently, I don't have an answer.'
Recent events have raised questions about the welfare of Iowa's foster and adopted children. In separate cases, two teenage girls — Sabrina Ray of Perry and Natalie Finn of West Des Moines — died after being adopted out of foster care. Natalie died from emaciation, according to reporting from the Des Moines Register. Sabrina weighed 56 pounds when she died.
'It's very sad to hear these things happen, but what you don't hear about every day is the successes we have — the families we keep together, the children we remove from situations that aren't safe,' then-Department of Human Services spokeswoman Amy McCoy told The Gazette in August. (McCoy now is communications director for Hy-Vee Inc.)
High-profile cases of child abuse often increase the number of additional reports the department receives. While it got 50,000 reports of child abuse in 2016, by the end of October department officials said they already have seen more than 75,000 this year.
As child abuse reports grow, the number of open cases for the department also has climbed. And, Iowa historically has placed children in foster care at a higher rate than most other states. In 2015, about 13 children per 10,000 residents entered foster care, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The median number in the United States is nine children per 10,000.
A lack of foster families to take in those children is one of the state's most pressing issues, said Karen Johnson, a Department of Human Services social worker who assesses child abuse and often is the worker physically removing a child from a home.
'It's just something I think about all the time when we have to remove,' Johnson said. 'I was in this situation yesterday and wondering (while) I had to help someone with removing three kids at 4:30 a.m. last night. … How long are we going to be here (in the office) with these three little kids, and where are we going to have to take them? ... I just feel like we have a terrible shortage of foster homes.'
Audubon, Tama, Webster and Woodbury County had the highest rates of kids in foster care in 2015; Cedar County had the lowest
In Four Oaks' 17-county area, there were 461 licensed foster families last year. In the same area, there were 464 children in need of a foster home.
'You have to have quality foster families,' McCoy said. 'Otherwise, you're not doing a whole bunch for those kids by removing them from one situation.'
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Gazette reporter Michaela Ramm contributed to this report.