Reynolds defends DHS’ efforts to protect Iowa children

By: - September 10, 2020 3:29 pm

Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks at a news confernce on Sept. 10, 2020. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS livestream)

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said Thursday she’s not sure why the state committee tasked with reviewing child deaths in Iowa hasn’t convened in 20 years.

In 2000, Iowa legislators authorized the state medical examiner to convene a Child Fatality Review Committee to investigate child deaths in Iowa with the goal of determining whether the Iowa Department of Human Services had responded appropriately to reports of suspected child abuse leading up to the deaths.

The committee, however, has never been convened. In fact, the state medical examiner rejected a formal request from a state lawmaker that the committee investigate the 2016 starvation death of 16-year-old Natalie Finn. The committee wasn’t convened then, nor did it convene after the 2017 starvation death of 16-year-old Sabrina Ray.

Those points were highlighted in two separate reports this year from the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, which investigated DHS’ response to child-abuse complaints in the years leading up to the two girls’ deaths.

At the governor’s Thursday press conference, Reynolds was asked what her office was doing to address that situation as well as a federal judge’s finding this year that DHS had “tortured” the children in its care at the Iowa Boys State Training School in Eldora.

“I’m not sure about the committee that was put together 20 years ago,” Reynolds said, adding that she and DHS Director Kelly Garcia meet weekly and “we’re always looking” for ways to do things better.

“One of the first things I did was to bring in new leadership at the Department of Human Services,” Reynolds said. “And Director Kelly and her team have done a phenomenal job really getting in there and not only doing internal audits but many times they’ve asked for extra audits to come in and identify the practices and areas where they need to improve in how they are addressing kids, especially in some really severe, high-need kids that have some significant records, that have some significant issues in their past.”

After Finn’s death in 2016, Matt McCoy, then a Democratic state senator from Des Moines, asked State Medical Examiner Dennis Klein to convene the Child Fatality Review Committee to review the case. Klein refused, arguing that an ad hoc committee made up of a medical examiner, a pediatrician and a law enforcement professional wouldn’t have the knowledge or skills to determine whether laws and policies that apply to DHS were followed. He also said such a committee could not conduct the sort of “detailed investigation required to fully illuminate the complexities and issues surrounding” Finn’s death.

Iowa has a separate 14-member Child Death Review Team that is tasked with promoting the exchange of information among agencies that investigate child deaths. By law, the team must submit an annual report to the governor on the cause and manner of child deaths in Iowa.

But in 2009, the team’s annual budget of $28,000 was eliminated and the coordination of its work was transferred to the state medical examiner’s office.

Klein says the team hasn’t had a line-item appropriation or operating budget since 2009, and the team has yet to issue the 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 annual reports that are required by law.

In the team’s 2015 annual report, which wasn’t published until 2018, Chairperson Meghan Harris pointed out that the group received no funding support of any kind, and the members’ travel and meeting expenses were largely paid by the members themselves.

In March, U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose held the state liable for violating the constitutional rights of children at the Boys State Training School in Eldora, which houses troubled youth ordered there by the courts. In her decision, the judge said the school, run by DHS, provided the youth there with inadequate mental health care, misused solitary confinement, and using what she called a “torture” device — a restraint known as the “wrap,” which holds children immobile.

The judge’s decision followed more than two years of litigation in which DHS steadfastly denied any wrongdoing.

At her Thursday press conference, Reynolds said she’s proud of Garcia and the work she and others at DHS are doing to address “significant” issues related to child protective services.

“I believe that under her leadership we are moving in the right direction,“ Reynolds said. “And nobody — nobody — wants to see children placed in situations where they’re not being taken care of appropriately.”

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.