Iowa’s Use of ‘Voluntary’ Safety Plans for Children Obscures Rate of Foster Placement

September 5th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The State of Iowa is using “voluntary” safety plans for children to give the appearance that its Department of Human Services has lowered its rate of taking children into foster care.  Read about it here (Des Moines Register, 9/1/12).

Back in June I wrote here about Texas’ use of “voluntary” plans to circumvent the due process of law afforded parents by courts.  In the Lone Star State, Child Protective Services had gotten so bad about ignoring due process that the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals told it to reform.  The habit had been to simply declare that an emergency existed in a child’s life.
 That allowed the agency to have an ex parte hearing before a judge, produce whatever evidence it wanted with no fear of contradiction, and get an order taking the child into foster care.  Parents and judges objected, and the Fifth Circuit told CPS to stop the practice.

So it did.  But instead of affording parents due process rights, it went the opposite way, affording them less, not more, due process.  It did that via “voluntary” safety plans for the children.  Typically, parents are now confronted with two options.  The first is agreeing to have their children taken by CPS temporarily.  The second is that they can assert their rights to a court hearing, but CPS makes it clear that they will always have a target on their back.  CPS will then do everything in its power to get the children away from the parents.  Faced with that choice, the parents often agree to what looks like the lesser of two evils – the “voluntary” safety plan, only to find out that “temporary” was a lot longer than they thought.

Some advocates have argued persistently that without the protection and advocacy guaranteed by law, any agreement proffered by an agency wielding power over a child’s custody can seem like a gun to the head…

“Maybe they make sense for cases that are very short in nature,” [child advocate Michael Sorci] said. “But what’s the sense in letting them go on months and months, unless you want to keep it out of courts?”

Now it seems that these so-called voluntary plans have become all the rage among child welfare caseworkers in other states.  Parents in Illinois sued to try to stop the practice, but an appellate court ruled against them.  In Iowa, they’re being used just as they are in Texas; parents are intimidated into signing the plan that results in the loss of their children for month, years and sometimes permanently.  But Iowa has developed yet another insidious use for the “voluntary” plans.  Since the plans exist solely between the parents and the agency, no court is involved, and where no court is involved, there’s no record of the children even being in foster care.  That is, the state doesn’t report the matter to the federal government, allowing it to claim a reduction in foster care placements.

For years, Iowa led the nation in its rate of taking children from their parents.  Indeed, the watchword of one governor was “When in doubt, take the child out.”  With that as the rule in cases of alleged abuse or neglect, it’s no surprise that Iowans saw an epidemic of taking children into foster care.  That habit drew fire, and now the state can claim a 35% decrease in takings since 2005.  But how much of that decrease really reflects the secrecy that accompanies “voluntary” safety plans that never see the inside of a courthouse, and thus are never reported to the federal government?

But Iowa doesn’t stop at merely intimidating parents in order to circumvent their due process rights and make DHS figures look better than before.  These “voluntary” plans aren’t just Dickensian in their capacity for abuse, sometimes they’re downright strange.  In a way I flat don’t understand, Iowa DHS actually manages to obtain the “voluntary” relinquishment of parental rights, not by the person relinquishing the rights, but by someone with no custodial rights to the child.  That involves legal gymnastics the article doesn’t describe and I can’t imagine.

In a Polk County case, a mother, Tiffany Koder, who lost custody of her two children in a contentious split with her ex-husband, Lance Brown, later alleged abuse by Brown and his new wife. A child-protective worker later had Koder sign a safety plan that prohibited Brown and Bailey Brown from having contact with their kids, despite the fact that Lance Brown was their legal guardian. “No one from DHS informed Lance that Tiffany had signed a safety plan that prevented him from having contact with his children,” [attorney Natalie] Cronk’s lawsuit on behalf of Brown says.

Hospital and DHS workers later found no signs of abuse by Brown or the stepmother, but DHS put one of the children in foster care in 2010 anyway using a voluntary placement agreement signed by the mother. Brown did not get both children back for 83 days, Cronk said.

I can’t see any explanation that allows one divorced parent to voluntarily limit the parental rights of her ex, but Iowa DHS seems to do it with impunity.  That’s why Cronk has sued DHS on behalf of two different parents, for violations of their federal civil rights due to the outrageous behavior of caseworkers.

The more we see of child welfare agencies, the more dangerous, incompetent and petty they look.  Our legitimate concern for children’s well-being has turned governmental power against families with the unsurprising result that both parents and children suffer.  Child protective agencies operate with far too little oversight as it is and their preference for taking children from parents is well-known.  What needs to change is the mindset of the agencies nationwide.  The internal workings of CPS need to be a matter of public record.  Redact children’s names if necessary, but knowledge of what the adults at every level of those agencies are doing must be available to all.  And resources must be redirected toward helping parents care properly for their kids and away from ever greater utilization of foster care.

The destruction of families by governmental  power is one of the great scandals of current-day America and that power must be brought to heel sooner rather than  later.

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