DES MOINES — The head of the state’s child welfare bureau defended the agency Monday against criticisms that case managers are overworked and understaffed — conditions legislative critics say have led to high-profile situations of abused children and at least one instance where a girl starved to death.
Wendy Rickman, administrator of the Department of Human Services’ division of adult, children and families services, said Iowa operates a “solid” child welfare system that scores well in national comparisons and operates with virtually no waiting lists or substantive gaps.
At the same time, she said, while the department works hard to protect children, situations may arise that require appropriate responses — similar to a situation where no one expects that just because a police agency is in place that no crime will occur.
She said social workers who handle child protective cases have remained relatively stable even though the agency has had to absorb about $28 million in spending cuts this fiscal year.
“I would never sit here and tell you that having more staff in the field would not be a good thing,” she told the informal legislative hearing.
However, Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, who organized Monday’s meeting, said he has talked to DHS case workers who say their overtime has doubled this year because there is not enough staff and that “people are falling through the cracks” because of it.
“They’ve basically said we’re trying to drink out of a fire hose every day and it’s impossible to do,” he said.
“What they’re telling me is they are just being buried and none of them want to give their names and none of them want to give their information because they believe that they will be fired if they do,” McCoy added.
“What I hope we do is show how vulnerable our children are in the state of Iowa and by not having adequate staffing to go out and do the work in the field and to do the investigations and to complete those investigations that we are putting vulnerable kids at risk and we need to change that system.”
The child welfare system is coming under greater scrutiny, McCoy said, due to two troubling cases that came to light within the past year.
Investigations and criminal proceedings are underway into last year’s death of Natalee Finn, a 16-year-old West Des Moines girl who starved. Earlier, Malayia Knapp testified to the legislative panel about being beaten, locked up and abused as an adoptive child before she turned 18.
Rickman said her agency’s intake unit handled 50,086 reports in 2016 with 52 percent qualifying for an assessment and 15,016 being assigned to a case worker. Of those, 6,368 were classified as founded or confirmed cases of abuse.
Overall, she said Iowa has 182 advanced social workers with average experience of 14 years and another 336 social workers at a lower investigatory level with average experience of 11 years — front-line positions that have held relatively stable in recent years.
McCoy said Rickman provided pertinent information to the committee Monday, but not all that was requested. They plan to have a follow-up meeting to get more specifics.
DHS spokeswoman Amy McCoy said legislators have repeatedly pointed to a reduction of about 800 position in the DHS under the Branstad administration since 2011, but noted those include the closure of three state institutions and others jobs unrelated to child-welfare services.
“Nationally, we perform very well,” she said. “Our outcomes in Iowa are very good and you could put us up against any other state. I think when you have two cases that are very high profile in a row, it causes you pause and of course you look more at yourself, and others are going to look more at you, but we have a very functioning system. Iowa is innovative, we perform well. We want to protect kids.”