DHS Management Discussion
Reaction: Administrator Wendy Rickman and Operations Manager Vern Armstrong shared their reactions to the two deaths. Rickman said they were unusual and different from her past experience and described herself as “flummoxed.” She said Armstrong told her the Finn case was “the worst I have ever seen.”
Response. At the recommendation of Casey Family Programs, DHS just contracted with the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group (Alabama), a longstanding consulting firm, to conduct six onsite visits to review overarching policies and practices and engage with key stakeholders. DHS will be consulting with “the usual groups” during this process. The Alabama group will produce an assessment with possible recommendation for further reviews, and DHS will then decide where to go next. Legislators asked to be included in this process and questioned whether this expenditure was sufficient. Rickman reiterated that the group’s consultation was an initial one, with possibly more to follow.
Staffing and Caseloads. In response to concerns about caseload growth, DHS insisted that its child protection staff numbers are not declining. Over the five years, DHS has had 200-210 SW3 and 340-350 SW2 workers. SW3 workers do child abuse assessments and CINA investigations, and SW2s are the ongoing case managers. Turnover has been 12 percent a year, with the average SW2 staying 11 years and SW3 14. DHS said the workloads are in the range of 12-14 and have not been increasing until now, when DHS is accepting more cases. Senator Matt McCoy questioned these figures, saying that many DHS staff have told him their caseloads are much higher. Senator Petersen asked about the percentage of DHS child protection staff who are licensed social workers, and Rickman agreed that her figure of 17 percent was likely correct. Rep. Thede asked about the training for social workers. Armstrong said SW2s receive 160 hours and SW3s receive 152 hours.
Foster care. Rickman insisted that foster care in Iowa was very safe, with 99.7 percent of children remaining safe. This figure is calculated as set forth in a federal review process. DHS discussed its recent $6.8 million statewide contracts for recruitment, training, and support for foster and adoptive parents. Four Oaks is providing services in four regions and LSI in the West. Rep. Heaton asked about the typical profile of a foster child and wondered if it is getting harder to recruit foster parents and if foster children are getting more difficult. He also expressed concern that some parents were fostering too many children. Rickman said recruitment was harder and that foster children varied greatly in their ages and behaviors. Senator Petersen asked whether DHS monitored the practices of the private agencies to make sure they were doing the required home studies. DHS insisted it does.
Subsidized adoption oversight. Rickman reported that, after adoptions are completed, adoptive parents are treated like any other parent, even if they are receiving state subsidies. In other words, they are left alone and not monitored. DHS will only learn of problems in care through abuse reports. Some legislators questioned whether there should not be check-ins, at least where subsidies were involved. Rep. Breitbach asked if a code change would be needed for instituting follow-ups in subsidized adoption cases. Rickman said she thought legislation would be needed.
Court System and Law Enforcement
County attorney involvement. Assistant county attorneys from Polk and Linn described how they handle DHS referrals and serve as a check on DHS actions. County attorneys receive information on all rejected and accepted cases and final assessment reports. They do not hear anything after family assessments.The Polk County attorney reported that her office does not look at the rejected reports. Legislators expressed concern about this review not occurring, saying an important check on the system was missing. The Polk County attorney expressed concern over funding levels and insisted caseloads were increasing.
Juvenile Court Judge. Polk County judge Colin Witt described his court’s practices, which include providing a guardian ad litem and attorney for each child. He described the notice parents receive. There are provisions for a child to give testimony without the parents being present. Legislators asked about out-of-state placements with relatives that might make it harder for parents to connect. DHS usually prefers an Iowa foster provider, even if not a relative, to assist with reunification.
Sheriffs. Sheriffs from Marshall and Dickinson counties described their collaboration with DHS. One expressed his concern over DHS caseloads and the amount of travel involved.
At several points in the hearing, legislators and DHS expressed concerns that home schooling takes away an important safety net for children, schools, whose employees submit the most reports of suspected abuse of any group. Scott Woodruff, an attorney with the Home School Legal Defense Association, testified. He insisted that, despite the three cases (and a fourth to be reported on soon), there really was no pattern of abuse related to home schooling. He insisted home schooling was safe for children and that restrictions on it do not make children safer or better educated. He argued that the best way to protect children would be to have a more “muscular” approach to repeat abuse. Senator McCoy asked about his organization’s opposition to court laws prohibiting parents with recent abuse cases from home schooling and requiring annual medical check-ins. Woodruff insisted there was no need for these requirements. McCoy expressed his opposition to the 2013 Iowa law that removed almost all requirements for home schoolers.
At the hearing’s conclusion, co-chair Rep. Kauffman said that he needed time to review documents and confer with committee members. As a result, he did not set a next meeting time. The other co-chair, Senator Breitbach, said that he has not been contacted by DHS or other sources and would like to hear from them. The consultation from the Child Welfare group will also be important over the next few months, as it may provide answers to a lot of the points of disagreement or uncertainty. Advocates on these issues will likely focus much of their efforts on engaging these experts. Despite their differences, legislators showed some openness to changes in these areas:
Requiring some ongoing contact or reporting from subsidized adoptive parents
Imposing minimal controls on homeschooling by parents where there has been a recent confirmed child abuse case; there seems less interest in requiring an annual medical check-up (which PA does)
Considering a stronger response (whatever that would be) in cases of repeat abuse or neglect
Looming above all these issues, of course, are the Iowa budget woes, which will make improving caseloads and practice more difficult.