Iowa’s ‘Remove First’ Policy for DHS Comes Under Fire

December 29th, 2011 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Much of the Arizona press is crying for more and more children to be taken from their parents by CPS.  Commentary in the Arizona Republic consistently runs in that direction.  It rightly cites the many horrifying cases in which CPS caseworkers knew about a child in danger but still failed to do the basic job of shielding the child from harm.  Over the years, many of those children died as a result.

It’s hard not to jump to conclusions in the face of those tragic and unnecessary deaths.  But the conclusion those commentators jump to is the wrong one.  They call for ever-greater intrusion into parental decision-making by CPS. 
As a practical matter, that means taking more children from parents and placing them in foster care at least temporarily.

Those who advocate that approach are well motivated; they want to protect children.  But is foster care the way to do that?  In this post I reprised a bit of social science that strongly suggests that children placed in foster care do far worse than other children.  More importantly, studies that compare outcomes of children in foster care with those in moderately abusive or neglectful parental homes find the foster kids still fare worse.  That’s not an argument for never placing children in foster care, but it is a strong argument for great caution in doing so.

I would urge the good folks in Arizona to read this article that appears to be the first in a series (The Gazette, 12/28/11).  Put simply, it seems that, almost a decade ago, Iowa went down the road currently being recommended by the Arizona Republic writers.  Predictably, the results have not been good.

How Iowa got where it is looks eerily reminiscent what’s going on now in Arizona.

When little Shelby Duis was found dead at her Spirit Lake home — with massive head injuries, fractured ribs and two broken hands — it sent a shock through the entire state.

Neighbors and day-care workers had warned child protective workers for nearly a year before the 2-year-old’s January 2000 death that the girl was being abused.

Then, later that same year, an Oskaloosa man came forward to say that he’d told officials for months his 23-month-old son was being mistreated by his estranged wife and her boyfriend before the boy was hospitalized with critical brain and spinal injuries.

Iowans demanded to know why the Iowa Department of Human Services didn’t protect these vulnerable children — why child protective workers had allowed them to remain in such dangerous environments.

Sound familiar?  It’s exactly the refrain now being sung by the Arizona press and law enforcement officials.  Well, Iowans got what they wanted – sharply ramped-up intervention by DHS into family life and parental decision-making.

Then-Gov. Tom Vilsack ordered DHS to adopt a “remove-first” policy — to remove a child from a home even before they’d determined whether reports of abuse were true.

“The watch phrase will be — when there is a doubt, work to take the child out,” he announced.

That philosophy persists today.

So what happened when DHS was given more power and the explicit encouragement from the governor to “take first and ask questions later?”  Unsurprisingly, many families that were broken up by DHS weren’t abusive at all.

But most of Iowa’s removal cases don’t involve physical or sexual abuse; rather, they’re largely “denial of critical care” — a catchall category that can include everything from bad housekeeping to poor supervision.

Into the bargain, the new powers given to DHS have resulted in a legal situation that looks problematical at best and possibly unconstitutional.  Remember, the U.S. Supreme Court has strongly suggested that states have no power to intervene in parental decision-making absent a showing that the parent is unfit.  Such a showing could only be accomplished using due process of law.  But is that what happens in Iowa?

Cedar Rapids-based therapist Virgil Gooding, a member of the African American Family Preservation and Resource Committee who has worked with DHS for decades, says the agency’s “culture of caution” unfairly places the burden of proof on parents — with often tragic results.

Placing the burden of proof on parents to prove they should keep their children is the exact opposite of what the Supreme Court suggested constitutional law requires.

But Governor Vilsack’s “remove first” policy has unquestionably “succeeded” in one way.

Even as other states have implemented reforms that have dramatically, and safely, reduced the numbers of children placed in foster care while supporting parents’ efforts to provide better home environments, Iowa continues to remove children from their families at an alarming rate.

When you adjust for poverty, only three states remove children from parental custody at rates higher than Iowa, according to Richard Wexler, Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

“There are so many ways out there to do better,” he said. “But Iowa hasn’t even tried.”

Wexler’s research shows that Iowa removes children at more than twice the national average when poverty rates are factored in — four times the rate of neighboring Illinois, where reforms have improved child safety while keeping more families intact.

So with all those children being removed from parents, you’d think that Iowa’s child abuse and neglect rates would have dropped dramatically.  After all, isn’t that the whole idea behind “remove first?”  Some parents abuse children; child welfare workers don’t always intervene in time, therefore the way to protect children is to take more of them from parents – and earlier – than before.  That’s what Vilsack ordered and it’s what many in Arizona are clamoring for now.

But does it work?  Are Iowa’s children safer now than before?  Were all those studies showing the dangers of foster care just wrong?

And, as the Urban Institute asked in its 2006 study, “What About the Dads?”  Many, many children taken from a single parent are taken from Mom.  But child welfare agencies nationwide skip Dad as the obvious placement alternative and go straight to foster care.  Is that what Iowa DHS did?  My guess is “yes,” and the article suggests I’m right.

As I said, the article is the first in series, so we’ll see.  With any luck, Arizonans will too.

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