PILOT EDITORIAL - Child abuse staffing: politics as usual?

Monday, January 22, 2001

It is infathomable to us that Republican leaders of a legislative budget committee could turn their backs on the governor's plea for more child abuse case workers, but that is just what seems to be happening.

In light of the recent finding that Iowa's ratio of child protection workers to the number of cases of abuse reports is twice the acceptable maximum standard recommended by the Child Welfare League of America, there is no time for politics as usual in Iowa on this subject.

Iowans did not sit through the sickening trials in the death of 2-year-old Spirit Lake toddler Shelby Duis for politics as usual.

It doesn't matter that Republicans may feel the need to prevent Vilsack from scoring a coup on the child protection issue to better position their own hopefuls for the coming gubernatorial challenge. Or that Democrats may feel a need to posture in hopes of making a future move toward majority control of the statehouse.

If our state leaders can't get motivated to work in a bipartisan way to protect our children, then they can't be motivated, period. We will be sorely disillusioned.

Lt. Gov. Sally Pederson made a rare move to address the House-Senate budget committee. One reporter described the result as "falling on deaf ears," after she was "grilled." Politics as usual.

Some members of the committee, and some of the experts called to testify to it, feel that hiring more case workers isn't so important - or at least that other efforts such as public education, access to doctors with expertise in abuse, increasing community involvement and better abuse reporting were much more important.

One question.

When we get all that public education, more people turning in abusers, more doctors doing better to identify abuse cases and so on, who is going to handle those cases?

And one more question. As we recall, the community did get involved in the Shelby Duis situation. Public reporting was done, over and over and over. A skilled doctor was seen, several times. Still, nothing was done to save the child. Without more better trained case workers, who will take the endangered child out of that home?

All of those things suggested to and by the committee are important; all components to a good strategy, yet they do not replace the need for trained workers to help children in troubled families. We can't imagine any successful scenario for reducing child abuse that would not involve putting some new workers on the front lines, some supervisors to back them up, and some better training to support them. Isn't that what the American Humane Association study the state commissioned taught us?

The governor's plan would add 98 social workers - that's about one per county. While it isn't cheap, that does not seem so out of line. What does it cost to repair people screwed up for a lifetime?

Vilsack also proposes abuse prevention programs costing $200,000 that might be funded from federal coffers. It seeks $335,000 to create quality assurance teams for child protective services. That isn't politics as usual, that is fulfilling a promise made.

The media and politicians pounced on the Duis case. It was ironic - if the child had gotten a fraction of the attention as a repeated beating victim as the lurid court cases received, she might have never died in the first place.

There were 6,700 confirmed cases of child abuse in the state last year alone, and another 30,000 reports of suspected abuse. Will there be enough resources to help them? Would the Republican lawmakers who don't think we need the proposed additional workers care to carry such a caseload?

Of course you can't solve such a problem by throwing more money or bodies or regulations at it. It will take a well-thought-out multi-leveled approach. But there is no way around the fact that we don't have enough child social workers to execute a better plan.

Nothing the state does will bring little Shelby back. All that can be done now is to learn from the multiple mistakes that were made in this case, trying to prevent other children from suffering needlessly. The best we can do is try to make sure Shelby did not die in vain.

That would be the case if we allow the issue of child protection in Iowa to become nothing more than politics as usual.