Staff Editorial

How many more children need to die before Iowa takes action?

A close-up view shows intricate details on the Iowa Capitol building in Des Moines on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Andy Abe
A close-up view shows intricate details on the Iowa Capitol building in Des Moines on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

This week, the state Ombudsman’s Office released its report investigating the death of Natalie Finn. Finn was a 16-year-old who died in October 2016 from cardiac arrest due to starvation. Natalie had been adopted from state care along with her siblings and was being home-schooled by her mother, Nicole Finn.

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

This isn’t the first report to reveal such a deep, systemic failure. In 2017, a consultant hired to investigate the Department of Human Services found that among other issues, high turnover, excessive caseloads and poor training were all contributing factors in the death of Natalie and another abused teen, Sabrina Ray. It’s worth noting there have been three DHS directors leading the agency since Finn’s death in 2016.

The recent ombudsman’s report echoes these concerns and reveals even more failures at multiple levels of DHS and the Iowa Legislature.

The ombudsman’s report is both alarming and thorough in its recommendations, from increased training to additional oversight. The recommendations must be taken up and put into place.

Some of the recommendations — including changing practice to read back the narrative of callers reporting child abuse to ensure they’re documented accurately and providing training on legal tools available to field workers facing resistance from parents — are common sense.

Several recommendations center around failures in the investigation — not following up with a neighbor who called police or the children’s father. Sadly, the ombudsman’s report points out these weren’t anomalous. In a 2017 review, field workers didn’t contact the person reporting the abuse in nearly half of the more than 200 cases in the review. They failed to contact the non-custodial parent in more than one-third of the reviewed assessments. A 2019 follow-up review showed similar results. DHS officials must improve practices and training of field workers.

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Additionally, the report points out that DHS is underfunded, and even the “recent budget increase is insufficient, especially in light of the increasing numbers of abuse reports and investigations since Natalie’s death.”

We call on DHS and lawmakers to make the necessary changes to increase the retention period for child abuse intake and assessment records. As the report points out, doing so would enable DHS staff to better identify patterns of abuse.

Lawmakers also must re-evaluate the Child Fatality Review Committee, which has never been convened since the legislation creating it was passed in 2000. We agree with the ombudsman’s assessment that reviews should be mandatory following a child death, and the reviewing entity would be independent of DHS and have authority to investigate all aspects of DHS’ involvement in a case.

Staffing levels and funding also were identified as critical issues in this case. Put against significant increases in reported and founded child abuse cases in Iowa, the tragic scenario could happen again.

While lawmakers do their best to restrict the right of women to access safe and legal abortions in the name of “protecting the babies,” children are dying due to an unwieldy and underfunded system. Furthermore, as the majority party discusses more tax cuts in an election year, we urge them not to do so on the backs of an underfunded system that is responsible for the lives of so many vulnerable Iowans who have no voice.

This isn’t just a DHS problem. As the 2017 DHS investigative report so aptly concludes, “Child welfare intervention should not be viewed as a substitute for universally available basic health, mental health and supportive community services that can help families, especially those in poverty, to voluntarily access resources needed by themselves and their children that may keep their needs from escalating to the point that they result in a report of abuse or neglect.”

(319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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