2017 Sees Surge in Iowa Child Abuse Cases

2017 Sees Surge in Iowa Child Abuse Cases

Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) figures released in mid-May show a striking increase in accepted child abuse reports and confirmed/founded abuse cases — leading to the largest single-year increase in abused children in at least two decades. The increases follow criticism of DHS officials over two high-profile teen deaths and a 2017 change in Iowa law expanding the scope of child protection to include more drug-related cases.


Table 1 (below) sets forth figures on how DHS handled child abuse reports from 2014-17. In 2017, DHS accepted 33,418 reports for assessment — a 30 percent increase from the 25,707 reports accepted in 2016.  DHS assigned 21.4 percent (7,136) of accepted reports to the family assessment track — much below the 29 percent assigned to this track in 2016.  (DHS assigns to the family assessment track those denial of critical care cases where it sees less risk of harm to children; those cases do not result in a determination whether abuse occurred.)


The remaining 26,282 child abuse reports (78.8%) received a traditional assessment, where DHS decides whether abuse occurred. In 2017, DHS found abuse in 32.6% (8,858) of its traditional assessments — a slightly lower percentage than the previous three years, when 35-36 percent of cases resulted in determinations that abuse occurred. The number of confirmed/founded cases in 2017 was almost one-third more than in 2016.


Table 1

DHS Reports, Assessments, and Confirmed Abuse, 2014-17

All told, DHS found that 11,236 children were abused in 2017 — a 27 percent increase from the 8,892 children abused in 2016. (There are more abused children than confirmed/founded cases because some cases involve more than one child as the subject of an abuse assessment.) This increase in abused children is the largest in the last two decades (see Table 2) — exceeding even the 2001 increase following the high-profile death of Shelby Duis, which led to major changes in the handling of abuse reports. A spreadsheet, Child Abuse in Iowa, 2017, has county-specific data on all of these categories. 


Table 2

Number of Iowa Children Abused, 1997-2017

Table 3 lists the number and types of abuse that DHS confirmed in 2017. Most common (64.6 percent) were instances of denial of critical care – where a parent or caretaker failed to provide adequate supervision, food, shelter, clothing, or other care necessary for a child’s well-being. Next most common (1,992 cases) were cases where someone possessed, distributed, manufactured, used, or cultivated cocaine, meth, heroin, or opium/opiates near a child. (Prior to 2017 legislation, this category included only cases involving meth manufacturing near a child; 33 instances of this type of abuse were found in 2016).


Other categories of abuse involved illegal drugs in a child’s body because of caretaker action or inaction (8.9 percent of all abuse), intentional physical injury (8.6 percent), sexual abuse (5.5 percent), and a parent or caretaker knowingly allowing a sex offender access to a child (1.0 percent).  Only 0.2 percent of cases involved mental injury to a child. A spreadsheet, Types of Child Abuse, 2017, has county-specific figures on types of abuse for  2017. 


Table 3

Number and Types of Child Abuse, 2017


Increases in the number of abused children was widespread, with 79 of Iowa’s 99 counties having more abused children in 2017 than in 2016. In five counties (Polk, Woodbury, Linn, Black Hawk, and Scott), the number of abused children rose in 2017 by 100 or more. In 13 counties, the number increased by more than half. Table 4 (below) lists those counties with the highest numeric and percentage increases. A spreadsheet, Child Abuse in Iowa, 2014-17, list the changes over the last four years for all Iowa counties. 


Table 4

Counties with the Largest Increases in Child Abuse, 2016-17




Changes in agency practice and child protection laws clearly had a significant impact in 2017 on Iowa’s child protection system. Unfortunately, this surge in demand for protection and services came during a time when state resources did not — no doubt putting greater strain on DHS and community providers. The need to increase resources to meet this demand is clear. Whether Iowa’s policymakers will meet that need in 2019 is uncertain.



A downloadable PowerPoint PDF contains data and notes expanding upon what

is in this report. There are the tables available for download:

Child Abuse in Iowa, 2017

Types of Child Abuse, 2017

Child Abuse in Iowa, 2014-17

Sexual and Physical Abuse, 2014-17

Denial of Critical Care and Presence of Illegal Drugs, 2014-17














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