I have seen a lot of political inaction in my time here in Iowa, but nothing that has perplexed and infuriated me as much as the state’s inability to respond to the starvation deaths of two adopted girls.
You would have thought something may have changed after 16-year-old Natalie Finn died from starvation and torture last October in her West Des Moines home. Police found Finn on a floor wearing an adult diaper, laying in filth from herself and the many animals that roamed the house. Her adopted siblings apparently faced similar physical and mental abuse from Nicole and Joseph Finn. The full report of her conditions was extremely disturbing.
Obviously, no meaningful action took place at Iowa’s Department of Human Services (except for the firings of two DHS employees), because last week we saw the same scene play out all over again.
Sabrina Ray, also 16 years old, was discovered dead in her Perry home, apparently caused by torture and starvation carried out by her foster parents. She weighed 56 pounds at the time of her death.
Once again, foster parents were homeschooling the child, keeping them out of the public eye. Once again, there were multiple adopted children in the house who were also abused. Once again, DHS case workers had been tipped off to potential abuse, but found no clear evidence when they investigated.
And once again many Iowans were left wondering just what the hell is wrong with this state. What type of monsters are capable of such cruelty, and who knew they live right next door? What kind of community fails to see the warning signs and act upon them? And how is our government and its leadership so thoroughly broken that this can happen twice in a year?
I drove by the Finn house the other day, just about 15 blocks from my home. Aside from an overgrown yard, you’d have no indication such a horrific tragedy had taken place in a simple house on a typical, quiet, suburban street.
And what’s particularly heartbreaking with the cases of Finn and Ray is that these girls didn’t ever have a chance in life. Parents should be the one thing in the world children can always count on to protect them – and in the cases where they can’t, where a biological parent is unable to do that, it’s the state’s responsibility to ensure they end up in a responsible home. DHS placed these two girls with devils.
One Iowa girl who did make it out alive from a similar horrific experience made headlines in the months after Finn’s death after the Des Moines Register wrote up her story. Malayia Knapp escaped her foster home in Urbandale in 2015, where her adoptive mother instructed the children in the home to beat each other with belts and locked Knapp in a closet for a week at a time.
You might think that these two horrible tragedies, played out in the light of considerable media coverage, would spur Iowa leaders to action. No such luck.
Terry Branstad repeatedly denounced Senator Matt McCoy’s efforts to hold official legislative oversight hearings as political posturing. Republican Senator Michael Breitbach, the senate oversight chairman, refused McCoy’s requests. Representative Bobby Kaufmann, the oversight head in the Iowa House, scheduled some meetings, but wasn’t going to bring up the Finn case.
The big problem with Branstad and Breitbach’s attempts to avoid public scrutiny of DHS practices is that they’re asking us to trust them. After Ray’s death, it’s clear their internal efforts have failed miserably.
Branstad responded this week by defending DHS Director Charles Palmer, saying he was doing a good job running a large and difficult agency. It was tone deaf, to say the least.
However, Kaufmann and Breitbach were finally compelled to plan a series of joint hearings on DHS, beginning the first week of June. It is too little, too late to have saved Ray. One really does have to wonder if Palmer might have directed DHS to quickly investigate any situations similar to Finn’s had he received more outside pressure earlier this year.
Still, there’s hope these new hearings might actually bring about meaningful change – but only if they’re serious about all the problems.
There appear to be four potential issues here, all of which need to be investigated and addressed.
Foster Children Placement
Clearly, the process for placing foster children with adoptive parents is badly flawed if this many lunatics who torture kids got approved for multiple children. These homeschooling situations with several adopted kids each just screams of the possibility that these people are adopting them for the money. Better vetting of potential adoptive parents is a must.
This seems like the first issue that needs to get fixed, but it does nothing for the kids around Iowa who are already in abusive homes.
How on earth DHS Director Palmer survives this is beyond me. If Kim Reynolds does not fire him in her first week as governor, it will be a serious missed moment for leadership. Closer internal investigation into DHS can determine if broken administrative leadership is to blame, but something like Ray’s death simply should not have happened after Finn and Knapp.
At any point after Finn’s death did DHS run a list of every other foster parent who has multiple adoptive kids, has some complaint – founded or not – of neglect or abuse and who’s also homeschooling, and then sent a case worker to check in on them? Is anyone doing that right this very moment? If not, Palmer is utterly incompetent.
Still, firing him is only a first step, and obviously won’t fix the problem as a whole.
Iowa has one of the loosest laws on homeschooling oversight in the country. Thanks to a law passed in 2013, parents do not even have to inform the local school district that they are homeschooling, so records of where homeschooled children are located are difficult to collect. And there’s no check-ins from the local district to see if a child is actually being taught anything, nor do parents have to submit annual assessments anymore to demonstrate a child is progressing in their education.
Plenty of children who attend public and private schools are mistreated at home as well, but it’s obvious that homeschooling makes it much, much easier to conceal child abuse.
Homeschooling networks, especially conservative Christian ones, have become increasingly distrustful of any government monitoring of the safety or education of their kids. But their unfounded conspiracy theories don’t take precedent over the safety of Iowa’s children. Republican lawmakers often give their Christian homeschool allies whatever they want, but they need to look at the bigger picture here – both in terms of children’s well-being and the deteriorating public perception of homeschooling.
Just months after Finn’s death, in the midst of serious questions of whether DHS workers were overwhelmed with their case loads, Branstad and Republican lawmakers passed a budget that cut $8 million from DHS field services. Without matching federal funds, that equated to a $16 million reduction that could harm the part of DHS responsible for looking after girls like Finn and Ray.
Yes, I understand Republicans wanted to reduce Iowa’s expenditures this year. But there’s real people and families behind each one of those government programs, and did they really have to slash funds for the most vulnerable children in Iowa this session?
McCoy found that there are 1,135 fewer DHS workers now then when Branstad returned to office after 2010. Caseworkers in urban areas can have as many as 70 cases at once, and 56 of Iowa’s counties don’t have any caseworkers living in the community.
A significant portion of the $124 million in cuts DHS took on this year should be reinstated for future fiscal years. Otherwise, how on earth can the agency properly look after Iowa’s most vulnerable children?
Step Up Or Step Aside
It is not difficult to see how Republicans’ reaction to this crisis plays out over the next few months. Reynolds could come in and fire Palmer, and the Legislature could pass some law strengthening the vetting of foster parents after a series of public hearings. They’ll call it a day, congratulate themselves, and move on.
But while those two measures are helpful first steps, they simply are not enough if we’re actually serious about this. Fixing one of these four problems might have saved either Finn or Ray’s life. Correcting all of them would greatly increase the safety of Iowa’s young children in the future.
The Republicans in charge at the Statehouse need to make the tough decisions on this issue. They have to confront their Christian homeschool allies and work through a solution for better homeschool oversight. And they need to restore and expand funding to DHS.
If they don’t, the danger will persist for vulnerable foster kids around Iowa. And more will be tortured and die.
What happened to Finn, Ray and Knapp shouldn’t happen in a state like Iowa, much less in a modern country. As is so often the case in our society and our politics, it’s bad enough when these horrendous tragedies occur in the first place. It’s much, much worse when we watch them happen and do nothing.
We are better than this as a state. It’s time for Iowa’s leaders to act, or get out of the way for others who will.
by Pat Rynard