DHS promises 'Better Results' with new anti-abuse plans

Monday, January 31, 2005

'Safe Haven law' has saved six infants left on Iowa doorsteps

Stung by cases such as the northwest Iowa death of Shelby Duis five years ago this season, and the "Child of God" discovered nearly three years ago in the trash at a Buena Vista County recycling center, the Iowa Department of Human Services is launching revolutionary efforts that its leaders feel will better stop or even prevent child abuse.

The death of the toddler Shelby Duis in Spirit Lake, and the resulting trial in Storm Lake that failed to reach a murder conviction in the case, was not lost on the agency.

"In the wake of Shelby, no one mourned that child any more than the people in DHS," agency spokesperson Roger Munns told the Pilot-Tribune this week. "What a horrible thing to have happened."

The agency was sharply questioned after the death, as it came to light that people had made reports of suspected child abuse and even calls to the state abuse hotline before the child was beaten to death. The public perception was that the agency did not respond adequately.

Even today, DHS officials are quick to admit that all was not right with their efforts in the past.

As a direct result of the Duis case, the agency's investigators were issued child abuse kits with cameras and measuring devices, so that for the first time, they would have a consistent means of measuring and recording any bruises and injuries they encounter on children.

"We have also looked into our handoffs - the process of moving a case from the investigator to the social worker who will follow up. In the past, our handoffs have not been clean," Munns said.

Since the Duis case, the federal government has also required states to live up to new, stringent threshholds for abuse services. "Every state has been measured, and every state has failed," Munns said.

Still, Iowa's DHS efforts outperformed those of most states, including all of Iowa's neighbors.

Iowa, like all other states, have been ordered to file a plan to improve their performance to keep children safe.

As a result, DHS has created a new child welfare system called Better Results For Kids. That program has been evaluated and accepted by the federal officials.

"No other project has engaged as much of the brainpower of this exceptional agency as this one has. We have just marked one year from the date Better Results for Kids was first announced," Munns said. "This change recognizes that our resources are limited, and that DHS will now focus on the toughest cases, the most fragile families where the risk of harm is at the highest."

Cases are judged on the age of the child at risk, the history of abuse in the home, and the presence of factors that can lead to abuse, such as drug use.

While DHS staff is concentrating manpower on those greatest risk cases, they are not ignoring the other situations that come before them, Munns said.

"We will try something else to prevent abuse from happening. Right now, there are hundreds of reports of abuse that prove to be unfounded, but we recognize that in many of those cases there is still some low risk that abuse will happen in those families."

Starting in March, all of those families that come before the DHS will be offered the choice of no-cost referrals or counseling services, in a program called Community Care.

"I know that a lot of families are probably going to tell us to go stick it, but some are going to realize the benefit being offered to them, and it can strengthen their families," Munns said.

"Frankly, it is a very experimental project."

The state is investing $3 million for an 18-month contract to build a network of available professional counseling services in communities all around the state to help the families that choose to be helped. "We are very hopeful and excited," Munns said.

None of this, of course, addresses a root problem - too many cases and too few workers leaves a heavy caseload on each of the DHS people assigned to investigate and provide services to families where abuse is happening or at risk.

"Caseloads are enormous and they are growing. No, we have not yet been able to reduce the caseload per worker. Obviously, we could do better with more people, but we have to realize that available resources to us are limited by reality," Munn said.

Instead of begging for more funding to hire more people, DHS is hoping to make its workforce more efficient.

"Time after time we hear about the paperwork and documentation problems. We have to document what is happening in that home, but the amount of paperwork and the duplication of the work detracts from the time a social worker gets to spend with families," Munns said. "We are using technology to make the documentation easier, and we will be issuing 'How Do I?" guides to help the worker know what to do in every situation."

Problems solved? Not yet, DHS officials admit.

"Obviously what we have done has not been enough. It is not just whether we provide the services, but whether it produces results. We need to be able to answer questions - Did our efforts prevent re-abuse? Did we work to keep a family together? If it is required, did we find a good adoptive home? How fast? - We are going to be measuring the results, not just the process. We are holding ourselves to very high standards," Munns said.

One risk factor that scares the DHS is what Munns calls 'the scourge of Iowa' - methamphetamine abuse.

"As far as I'm concerned, there isn't anything better suited than meth to help people to make horrible decisions in their lives. It is an epidemic around this state. Thankfully, Iowans have realized this and given us great support is trying to address the impact on families and children," Munns said. Drugs were alleged to have played a role in the home of Shelby Duis.

Will any of these emerging DHS efforts actually reduce child abuse? Can it save a child like Shelby Duis somewhere, someday?

"Boy, we hope so. We are set up to respond. But we do not get involved until you or your neighbor tells us that you think there is abuse in a home. Someone has to call us," Munns said.

DHS officials feel the statewide child abuse reporting system, one of the areas that allegedly failed in the Duis case, has been improved. "That is one area where the ball has been dropped. We're better, more consistent at the intake level. At night, the hotline is operated out of Eldora, and it is up to those people to make a snap decision whether an investigator should be called in at that moment, or whether the local DHS should be alerted the next day," Munns said. "This is a human system after all. You do your darndest, but we are still talking about human judgement."

DHS also credits a separate group, Prevent Child Abuse Iowa, for helping to increase awareness to the problem. While child abuse cases are rising, no one knows whether that means more abuse is taking place, or whether more people are willing to make reports of their suspicions, Munns said.

"It is quite clear that people are more aware," he said.

The single biggest predictor of child abuse is poverty, according to DHS experience. "That is not because poor people can't raise kids, but because poverty over time produces tremendous stress. We have children having children. We have parents who were battered when they were children. There are some horrific situations out there that we are seeing," Munns said.

While it may seem to some that race is a factor in abuse arrests, Munns said race is not a predicting factor in abuse. "People feel the DHS goes after people of color. That is not true. However, people of color are at risk of poverty at a higher rate, and poverty is an issue. Still, we are concerned about the seeming (It's not just seeming. It's a real disparity) disparity of families of color in abuse cases, and we have started two pilot programs in northwest and central Iowa to try to take race out of the equation," Munns said.

Another challenge for the agency is to deal with children who must be taken out of the home after abuse, when it becomes evident that the situation will not allow the child to be returned. "That is very sad, and we don't want to make it sadder by making that kid wait in a foster home through their teen years. We need to find adoptive families and move children faster," Munns said.

"This is one of Iowa's strongest areas. Not only did we set a record for placements last year, but we easily exceeded the national standard which requires us to find placements fast."

The waves of abuse cases take their toll on DHS workers too.

"I would be just tickled if the time comes when there is no need for the child welfare system," Munns said. "After the 9-11 tragedies, I really thought people would take a closer look at their families and realize what a blessing their children are and hug them and resolve to take better care of them. Unfortunately, that did not seem to happen at all."

Storm Lake saw an unidentified infant left to die in a vacant trailer a number of years ago, and in an eerily similar case, a child was found abandoned in the trash at the recycling center in May of 2003. These children, known locally as "Baby Doe" and "Child of God," were adopted and buried in ceremonies by the community. Both cases remain open for police.

Perhaps only more knowledge of Iowa's "Safe Haven" law could prevent such tragedies.

Four years ago, the state formalized its Safe Haven policy, which allows a parent who cannot care for a newborn 14 days old or less to drop them off at any health related agency without risk of child abandonment charges.

Since that time, six infants have been left in such circumstances. All six have been taken by adoptive families, and all are well today, Munns said.

"Still, it is a very difficult audience to reach. In many cases we are talking about very troubled and scared teenagers, who in some cases may deny their own pregnancy. How do you get information on the options to people in this situation?"

The public can help by talking about child safety in their communities, and by reporting any abuse they see. They may call the Buena Vista County office of the Department of Human Services during business hours, but for emergency situations should call 911 or alert their local police or sheriff immediately. The public is also urged to utilize the statewide abuse hotline at any time, 1-800-363-2178.

The only way to prevent another Shelby Duis or Child of God tragedy is to get help there before the tragedy can happen.

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