DES MOINES — The quality of the state’s child welfare system was under the microscope Monday as legislators held a joint government oversight committee meeting and Gov. Kim Reynolds said the state has an obligation to review the process to ensure it’s adequate.
For more than six hours, legislators questioned Department of Human Services, or DHS, officials as well as other members of the safety net, including county attorneys, law enforcement and a district judge about processes, social worker caseloads and best practices.
They touched on everything from staffing levels and funding to how an allegation of child abuse is assessed and addressed.
“Child safety is a crucial role for all of us. As a parent, my children and all of Iowa’s children deserve the opportunity for a safe childhood and optimistic future,” said state Sen. Michael Breitbach, R-Strawberry Point, chairman of the Senate Government Oversight Committee.
The out-of-session legislative meeting was called after two high-profile deaths of adopted children in the care of the DHS system.
Authorities found Sabrina Ray, 16, unresponsive in her home in Perry on May 12. The State Medical Examiner noted in its initial autopsy results that Sabrina died from severe malnutrition, weighing 56 pounds at the time of her death.
According to authorities, DHS was monitoring her home because of earlier complaints of abuse. At the time, child protective investigators said they found no evidence.
Her parents, Marc Alan Ray and Misty Jo Ray, were arrested in mid-May and face multiple neglect charges in her death.
The teenager’s death follows the death of another teenager — Natalie Finn, 16, also adopted — in West Des Moines who died last year of starvation. Natalie’s parents were arrested and await trial.
Legislators were concerned about what they believe to be low staffing levels and high caseloads as well as how foster parents are recruited and trained.
“Here are some numbers that show why the Iowa’s current system to prevent child abuse is stressed beyond its capacity,” said Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines. “There are 1,135 fewer people working for DHS today than when Gov. Branstad/Reynolds assumed office in 2010. Last year, 37,840 children and adults were assessed for abuse.
“Thirty-six percent of all assessments yielded a finding of abuse indicating a need for child welfare case management. Just 182 Iowa social workers do on-site assessments for abuse and 56 Iowa counties have no assigned child investigators who actually live in that county.”
DHS officials said Iowa conducts a thorough review of all foster parents, collecting independent references, asking questions about parenting styles and marital relationships, and doing background checks. The state’s goal is to keep children safe in their homes, and in cases of abuse or neglect, first place the children with relatives and then reach out to the foster network.
The department also said it works diligently to appropriately staff in areas of critical needs.
Care plans are put into place and home assessments are conducted through a third-party human services agency.
“For the kids that reside in foster care in the state of Iowa, 99.7 percent of the time are free from any kind of maltreatment — 99.7 percent. Is it 100 percent? It obviously is not,” said Wendy Rickman, division administrator of adult children and family services at DHS.
“... But when we’re talking about whether the system is functional or not — cases like this, which we are so concerned about — create a crisis in the child welfare system.”
Meanwhile, the state on Monday announced it has hired an outside organization to conduct a review of the child welfare system. The Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, an Alabama-based nonprofit group, will be on site within the next several weeks to talk with a variety of stakeholders, DHS said.
The state will pay the group $39,550 for six visits over the coming months to look at challenges and offer solutions.
The group worked in Iowa for several years beginning in 2000 on system evaluation and staff training and coaching efforts. It also participated in a focused evaluation of child safety in Iowa following a child’s death during that period.
But several Democratic legislators said they don’t think working with the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group goes far enough and questioned the autonomy of the review.
“We’re paying $39,000 for a cursory study that will come back with what I consider a blanket report about problems that are systematic and deeply rooted in our department, and I believe $39,000 doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface,” McCoy said.
The review comes as the department’s longtime director, Charles Palmer, has announced plans to retire this month.
During her weekly news conference Monday morning, Reynolds thanked Palmer for his years of public service. She added she has started the process of seeking a new DHS leader who will continue the agency’s mission but will be willing to consider new approaches.
“Sometimes, when you bring somebody new in, it’s a new set of eyes looking at how these services are provided, and sometimes, that’s healthy, too, just somebody asking questions that may not have been asked before,” she said.
“I’ve said I’m not somebody that’s satisfied with the status quo,” Reynolds added. “That we should always, in every single agency, that we should look for ways that we can do this better, more efficiently and more effectively, and that is what I hope that we will do.”
Reynolds said her administration will re-evaluate the state’s child welfare and child protection efforts.
“No child should have to endure the abuse that those two children endured. It’s unconscionable,” she said. “We have an obligation to review this process and see if the adequate process is in place, and that’s what we’ll do. That is what the Legislature is doing this morning, that is what this office will continue to do.”
The governor stressed that Iowa has “great foster parents out there” taking care of children by “doing it right.” But she noted that the problems that have come to light point up the state’s “obligation to work with this system and to do everything we can to make it better and more efficient and to make sure that we have the proper oversight in place.”