Iowa is among states with the highest share of children in foster care — with six kids out of every 1,000 entering the system in fiscal 2013.
Some decry the numbers as a sign child advocates are too quick to yank children from biological families. But others say Iowa’s laws give judges more latitude to remove children from dangerous environments, such as houses in which drugs are manufactured.
“Iowa’s child abuse law is one of the better laws,” said Dr. Resmiye Oral, a pediatrician who runs the Child Protection Program at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. “The cost of that may be the removal of some of those children.”
One year into a new way of responding to child neglect cases, Iowa Department of Human Services officials say they expect the share of children in foster care to gradually decrease.
Foster care By the numbers
Iowa had 4,500 children enter the foster care system in fiscal 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Children’s Bureau. With 724,032 children under 18 in Iowa that year, the removal rate was 6 children per 1,000. Only five states — West Virginia, Wyoming, Arizona, Montana and Oklahoma — had more children enter foster care.
The number of Iowa children removed from their biological families dropped to 3,974 in fiscal 2014, Human Services reported, down from a high of 6,781 in fiscal 2005.
Part of the reason Iowa still has a larger share of children in foster care than other states is a broader definition of child abuse, advocates said.
Drugs linked to abuse in Iowa
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Child abuse, as defined by Iowa Code Section 232.68, includes nonaccidental physical injuries, sexual abuse or mental abuse. Guardians who don’t provide adequate food, shelter, clothing or other care may also be charged.
Iowa’s child abuse law is one of the better laws
- Dr. Resmiye Oral
University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics
Drugs found in a child’s body because of a guardian’s actions or neglect can be grounds for criminal charges. Guardians also may be charged with child abuse if they manufacture drugs around their children or have drug precursors.
A study published last year by Dana D. Connolly, a doctoral student at the University of Kentucky, shows only three states had at least three drug-related child abuse definitions in 2010.
Another factor that may influence how many children are in foster care is who is required to report child abuse. In 2010, 18 states required all citizens to report abuse, Connolly reported.
Iowa doesn’t go this far, instead having a list of mandatory reporters that includes doctors, teachers and police officers, among others.
Too many removals?
Altoona grandmother Jeanne Munson thinks DHS is too quick to recommend removing a child from his or her biological family. With the agency’s nod, a judge ordered Munson’s four grandchildren live with other families despite Munson’s desire to care for the children.
She has a good job, college degrees and clean house and no criminal record, she said.
“They’re taking kids out of families they shouldn’t, and missing other kids they should be taking,” Munson said.
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The overrepresentation of minorities in foster care is also a concern. Black children in Iowa were represented in foster care in 2009 at a rate nearly four times their proportion in the general population, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges reported in 2011.
In January 2014, Iowa started a new approach to child abuse and neglect complaints designed to keep kids from being unnecessarily removed from their families.
Differential Response, approved by the Iowa Legislature in 2013, creates two pathways for complaints. Abuse complaints go the traditional route with a child abuse assessment to determine if the allegations are founded.
Often children are removed during these investigations.
Neglect complaints, which could include a wandering child or a dirty house, get what the agency calls “family assessments,” in which social workers try to figure out what supports families need to get back on track. If the neglect does not rise to the level of abuse, children often can remain with their families as improvements are made.
Of complaints in 2014, 39 percent, or 9,100 cases, were assigned to the family assessment pathway. An additional 5 percent were reassigned to a child abuse assessment after initial review.
It’s too soon to say whether Differential Response will reduce removals, but DHS is optimistic.
“We expect that removals would go down gradually as we are providing services to more families, which will increase their ability to protect and parent their children,” DHS Spokeswoman Amy McCoy said.