Almost Twice National Average In IA Foster Care

.jpg photo of Child Abuse graphic
“One long-time external partner observed that the emphasis on working with families and on reunification seems to have been lost.”

Child Abuse reports up, morale poor among
Iowa social workers, consultant reports

Child abuse investigations in Iowa have increased 43 percent since last year, but the state’s response to those reports needs work, according to a wide-ranging review released Friday.

About 8.2 children of every 1,000 in Iowa are in foster care, higher than the national rate of 5.5 per 1,000, the report by the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group shows.

“One long-time external partner observed that the emphasis on working with families and on reunification seems to have been lost.”

The consultant’s review of child welfare practices in Iowa criticized both the Department of Human Services for high turnover and poor morale among caseworkers and state policies and spending priorities.

It was initiated amid investigations into several reported child abuse cases that were not caught in time, including the deaths of Natalie Finn of West Des Moines in October 2016 and Sabrina Ray of Perry last May.

Ray’s adoptive parents and other family members face multiple felonies next year following her starvation and physical abuse.

Finn’s mother was convicted of first-degree murder and kidnapping this month.  Her ex-husband, Joseph Finn II, goes to trial next month.

The reviewers made numerous short- and longer-term recommendations that likely will be discussed next month at the Iowa Legislature.

The consultants found morale is poor among state social workers.

And while Iowa’s Department of Human Services enjoys a largely stable workforce, turnover and caseloads are high in Polk and Linn counties.

Staff complain that training is insufficient and the state for too long has expected them to do more with less.

The report recommended, among other things, that Human Services:

  • Provide more accurate caseloads of child welfare workers in each Iowa county and more competency-based training;
  • Provide better services and communication with children and families; and
  • Eliminate barriers to its central abuse intake system.

“The department will look closely at the recommendations to see what we can move on within the agency, and what may require legislation or additional action,” spokesman Matt Highland said.

Mandatory reporters of child abuse in Iowa voiced frustration with the state agency charged with investigating abuse because they weren’t able to find out what happened after they provided information, the report found.

“Physicians, educators and providers of community-based prevention services… expressed frustration with their inability to communicate with DHS, particularly following their having made a report,” the report said.

Educators complained that parents often disengaged because they were able to figure out where abuse reports originated, and then those same reports resulted in no intervention by social workers.

“Several also cited situations in which this has resulted in parents’ retaliation against children as information made available to the parents made it clear that children disclosed alleged maltreatment,” the report states.  “In these cases, children may cut off communication with teachers, counselors or mentors with whom they had previously trusted.”

But in some places, the report was as much a critique of state leaders’ policy and spending priorities as Iowa’s child welfare practices.

“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,” the report said.

The state’s child welfare system is not doing enough to engage children’s parents in assessing needs related to child safety and evaluating progress, according to interviews with youth, parents, grandparents, foster parents and DHS case managers.

“One long-time external partner observed that the emphasis on working with families and on reunification seems to have been lost.”

Another issue: Agencies that contract with Human Services are receiving $500 per family for each referral, regardless of whether the family uses the voluntary services.

The consultants voiced concern about child welfare being housed within the Department of Human Services, the state’s largest agency which juggles sizable responsibilities.

They also said its staff is tasked with administering so many programs in search of efficiency, their understanding of child welfare initiatives and policies is hindered.

“Assessing the often multiple and complex needs of families and children who present to child welfare systems requires substantial clinical knowledge and skill in gathering and interpreting information,” the report said.

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