Issues of poverty create disparities in Iowa's child welfare system

'An expression of neglect'

An Iowa Department of Human Services office. (Gazette file photo)
An Iowa Department of Human Services office. (Gazette file photo)

Of the more than 50,000 reports of alleged abuse against a child in the state of Iowa received by the Department of Human Services in 2016 — in or outside the foster care system — only 6,368 cases were confirmed.

Sixty-five percent of these cases were categorized as denial of critical care, one of 11 legislatively driven definitions of abuse that need to be met to accept a case into the department’s child welfare system.

However, denial of critical care is unique from other abuse allegations, officials say. Where abuse is something a parent actively is doing to the child, neglect is something the parent is not doing, said Janee Harvey, department child welfare and community services bureau chief.

Denial of critical care encompasses eight subcategories, including neglect, lack of supervision and essential needs not being met for the child, such as food, medical care or shelter.

Roxanne Riesberg, child protections policy program manager for the department, said these cases are accepted when the child is at risk of injury or death, or in cases of supervision if the child was directly harmed or placed at risk.

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While department officials attribute the broad nature of the definition as a reason for Iowa seeing so many cases, Harvey said neglect also can be entangled in issues of poverty or lack of mental health care.


“As loving and well-intending as a parent can be, if these other issues are destabilizing the family unit or complicating their ability to take care of the kids, it tends to come out as an expression of neglect,” Harvey said.

Because these issues can affect non-white communities at a disproportionately higher rate, Harvey said the state’s foster system shows a population disparity with children of color.

“Child welfare does sometimes tend to reflect and overrepresent some of the challenges different communities really face,” Harvey said.

According to DHS, white children represented the vast majority of the foster care population in 2015 with about 62 percent. However, black, Hispanic and Native American children are disproportionately represented in the system compared to the state’s entire child population, according to 2015 data.

l Black children represented about 12 percent of foster care, while only representing six percent in Iowa’s total population of children.

l About 1.6 percent of foster care was represented by Native American children, who only being about 0.4 percent of the statewide population of children.

l Hispanic children represented 10 percent in foster care, compared to being 10 percent the statewide population of children.

Four Oaks, which oversees the training of foster parents in a 17-county area that includes Cedar Rapids, is trying to prioritize matching the characteristics of the area’s foster children with the adults that care for them.


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A representative of the agency said it has a goal to recruit at least 75 more foster families who are black, Latino, multiracial and Native American. It also is in search of multilingual families, those who can care for sibling groups of three or more and teenagers, and families willing to care for children with disabilities.

However, Anthony Haughton, a lawyer that represents a child’s interests in Johnson County court, attributes the lack of diversity among Department of Human Services social workers as part of this disparity.

Haughton said as the majority of department social workers are white women, certain expectations or norms are projected onto different standards of living.

“It could be for something as simple as a family becoming involved because a parent spanked a child,” Haughton said. “There are instances of abusive hitting, but like I point out in many black households, particularly in lower socioeconomic ones, spanking is common.”

Oftentimes, it doesn’t translate well, he said.

“It almost sometimes becomes a recipe for failure because those folks can’t live up to those middle-class standards, whether it’s being able to acquire an automobile, or can’t take off of work because you’ll be fired, or difficulty coming to court,” Haughton said. “It avalanches, until it builds and builds and builds.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8536;

Gazette reporter Molly Duffy contributed to this report.

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