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Education

Audit: Iowa State's Department of Psychology shortcomings risk 'noncompliance with laws'

Beardshear Hall on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Beardshear Hall on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

AMES — Iowa State University’s Department of Psychology is negotiating new contracts and shoring up old practices after an audit found numerous failings that risk “noncompliance with laws and regulations, financial loss, and reputational damage” that jeopardize student and patient health and safety.

The department shortcomings — identified in a new Board of Regents audit as needing the highest level of attention and potentially involving “unacceptable” weaknesses and risks — include failure to meet contract requirements with external practicum sites.

The psychology department — with 786 undergraduates and 61 graduate students — offers off-campus practicums to help students apply knowledge and develop skills in settings such as community and Veterans Affairs hospitals, outpatient clinics, and child and adolescent counseling centers.

But internal auditors found — for the fall 2018 semester — the department either lacked contracts or had incomplete contracts with the five external sites hosting ISU students. Two of the practicum sites did not have contracts; two had contracts that were not adequately signed; and the one fully executed contract was signed by an ISU official who “does not have the delegated authority to enter into contracts on behalf of ISU.”

As for the ISU contracts that do exist, auditors found requirements “are not being met” — including in the area of background checks, which “are not being completed despite being noted as a university responsibility.” According to contract language, ISU must perform background checks on students assigned to clinical sites — including checks with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and the Iowa Department of Human Services Abuse Registry.

The department also is not verifying student participants have up-to-date vaccinations, as is required, nor is it clearly defining medical professional liability insurance, according to the audit.

Among the problems is a lack of in-writing clarity around roles and responsibilities for management of the internal practicum program.

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“Not having a written agreement increases the risk of non-compliance with laws and regulations, financial loss, reputational damage, and jeopardizes the health and safety of students and patients,” according to the audit.

Iowa State faces similar risks in its operation of Network Community Counseling Services, one of 20 labs it runs, which offers group and individual counseling along with training and research opportunities. Because its attorneys have not reviewed forms completed by Network clients, the university faces “significant risk of not being in compliance with laws, policies, and ethical standards.”

“Psychology should consult with university council regarding the forms currently in use by Network to ensure the language and information collected is consistent with applicable state and federal regulations,” according to the audit’s recommendation.

Auditors also found Iowa State was violating policy by guaranteeing graduate students assistantships — plus full tuition and health insurance — for two years.

“Funding for graduate students cannot be guaranteed for more than one fiscal year,” according to the audit. “An offer of more than one year is non-compliant with the Graduate College handbook.”

Auditors suggested altering offer-letter language to clarify appointments come one year at a time, allowing for annual review of student performance and resources. ISU management confirmed it has, according to the report, revised its offer-letter language “to only include a promise of one year of funding.”

Iowa State also promised to research and correct who has building access and how it accounts for and safeguards loaned equipment. The Department of Psychology’s equipment loan program includes 30 computers, eight projectors and four cameras, and it allows employees and students to borrow the equipment to fulfill professional and academic requirements.

“The equipment loan program does not have controls in place to ensure equipment is accounted for and safeguarded,” according to the audit. “There is also no process to confirm that individuals borrowing equipment are in the Department of Psychology, and contact information for borrowers is not being recorded.”

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Auditors found 11 of 30 computers were not properly accounted for, prompting ISU to commit to establishing and enforcing a due date for equipment loans and improving training.

Additionally, by April, the Iowa State department chair and Counseling Psychology Program director will negotiate new contracts with external practicum sites “making it the practicum sites’ responsibility to conduct background checks,” according to the audit.

They also will craft a plan to document student vaccination records.

“Many of these issues are well in hand,” Board of Regents Chief Audit Executive Patrice Sayre told the board during its meeting Wednesday.

Members of the board did not ask any questions related to the audit.

ISU spokesman John McCarroll noted the department has completed five of nine recommendations and is working on the rest.

“The audit team provided helpful recommendations for strengthening internal controls in the department,” McCarroll said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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