Government

Four years after Iowa teen's death, state ombudsman warns of missteps by child protective agency

DHS has accepted 11 of the report's recommendations

Kelly Garcia became the Director of the Iowa Department of Human Services on Nov. 1, 2019. Photographed at the Grant Woo
Kelly Garcia became the Director of the Iowa Department of Human Services on Nov. 1, 2019. Photographed at the Grant Wood Area Education Agency in southwest Cedar Rapids on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Unless Iowa’s child protection workers are given the resources they need, another tragedy like the death of West Des Moines teen Natalie Finn could happen again, according to a new report from the State Ombudsman’s Office.

The 160-page report released Monday morning details an investigation in the Department of Human Services’ handling of child abuse reports of Finn, a 16-year-old who was starved to death at the hands of her adoptive family in October 2016.

Emergency responders were called to the West Des Moines home, where they found her emaciated, weighing only 81 pounds. She died of cardiac arrest a few hours later at a hospital.

Now, nearly four years after the girls death, the ombudsman’s report states that 14 child abuse reports had been made to DHS on behalf of Finn and her siblings.

The first three reports had been made on the Finn children between 2005 and 2009. But the records for these reports were “scant or non-existent” because of DHS policies on maintaining child abuse records, according to the report.

Thombudsman’s report focused on five reports made to DHS from November 2015 to May 2016.

The concern that Finn was not getting enough food at home was a common one among the five people who made those abuse reports in that period, according to the report.

However, no pattern was noticed until the fifth report “when a DHS worker took a step others did not and reviewed the four prior abuse reports about the Finn family,” according to the report.

The first four of those abuse reports had not been assigned to DHS field staff for further investigation.

However, Ombudsman Kristie Hirschman concluded that three of those abuse reports should have been accepted for investigation. Within two of those reports, made six months apart, the Ombudsman’s Office stated in its report that school officials described Natalie as “starving” and “very thin.”

In the May 31, 2016, report — the only report accepted for investigation by DHS — the Ombudsman’s Office stated it found “a number of serious missteps with how that investigation was handled by field staff.” According to the report, key witnesses were never identified or interviewed, the case was plagued by procedural irregularities and the case “was allowed to languish for extensive periods of time.”

Hirschman noted in the report there has been an increased call volume to DHS since Finn’s death, which has resulted in a 36 percent increase to field workers’ average caseloads from 2016 to 2018.

“Although DHS received funding for the current fiscal year to hire additional field staff, I believe employees remain overworked, especially those in the intake unit,” Hirschman said in the report.

“I am seriously concerned that the recent budget increase is insufficient, especially in light of the increasing numbers of abuse reports and investigations since Natalie’s death.”

The Ombudsman’s Office offered 14 recommendations to DHS, 11 of which were accepted by the agency in response to the report.

“This was a tragic case,” DHS Director Kelly Garcia said, according to the report. “The Finn children should never have had to endure the treatment they received.”

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Garcia added that, “We will learn from this and improve the safety net DHS provides to Iowa’s children. Some of the work to improve the department’s response began immediately, but a large part of the department’s ongoing efforts will focus on finding better ways to support our team so they can better support the families we serve.”

Finn’s father, Joseph Finn II, was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Her mother, Nicole Finn, received three life sentences.

Comments: (319) 368-8536; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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