CORONAVIRUS

Complaints to ombudsman show COVID-19 tested Iowa governments

A mural by Edwin H. Blashfield titled #x201c;Westward#x201d; at the Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines on Tuesday
A mural by Edwin H. Blashfield titled “Westward” at the Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. The mural symbolizes pioneers arriving in Iowa. (The Gazette)

Like much of life in 2020, COVID-19 tested Iowa government in ways not imagined “and the proof was in the complaints,” according to the Iowa Office of Ombudsman’s annual report.

Problems related to COVID-19, especially in the early months of the pandemic, dominated complaints received by the office. The office dealt with complaints ranging from cities halting garbage pickup, to prison inmates not receiving mail to problems with unemployment compensation and federal stimulus benefits, Ombudsman Kristie Hirschman said in her report Monday.

Despite the challenges of COVID-19, Hirschman said that agencies generally took “thoughtful and practical approaches to continuing operations while preventing the spread of the virus.” Most were receptive to suggestions from her office on how to solve those issues, she added.

However, in some cases, the results were tragic, Hirschman said. Two investigations released by the ombudsman earlier this year determined that excessive workloads contributed to lapses by the Iowa Department of Human Services in the oversight of homes where two teenage girls starved to death.

Summaries of the investigations, which resulted in 27 recommendations to improve Iowa’s child-welfare system, are included in the ombudsman’s report.

One report looked at the death of Natalie Finn, 16, who died a few hours after emergency responders were called to her adoptive family’s West Des Moines home in 2016. The other major child death investigation looked at the “horrific abuse and starvation” of Sabrina Ray, 16, who died in 2017.

In both cases — and many others — the ombudsman’s office cited “staffing shortfalls throughout government (that) continue to put citizens at risk.”

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“As a society, we often fail to recognize the critical nature of many government services until something goes tragically wrong,” Hirschman said. She encouraged elected officials and government agencies to “do what is necessary to ensure that the vulnerable people who depend on your services can count on you.”

The ombudsman’s office, which marked its 50th year of serving Iowans who believe that a state or local government agency has acted unfairly, unreasonably, inefficiently or contrary to law, fielded 5,665 complaints this year. That’s a 5 percent increase from 2019 and up 20 percent from 2010, but fewer than the 5,929 complaints the office received 20 years ago.

Local government and the Department of Corrections each were the subject of 24 percent of cases, the ombudsman’s office said. The office received 1,348 complaints stemming from the state Department of Corrections.

State government accounted for 23 percent with “other” and county jails the source of 15 percent and 14 percent, respectively.

A number of state departments, including Cultural Affairs, Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System and the Economic Development Authority, had no complaints. The ombudsman’s office was the source of five complaints.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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