The new leader of the largest agency in state government vows to “improve morale” among “front-line” social workers and conduct a “bottom-to-the-top” review of Iowa’s child welfare system.
Today was Jerry Foxhoven’s first day as director of the Iowa Department of Human Services.
“Part of my challenge will be to work with the people in that system right now and for all of us to step back and say: ‘What are we doing that’s working? What we doing that’s not working?’ And if it’s not working, we need to change it,” Foxhoven said during an interview with Radio Iowa.
An outside consultant already has begun a review of cases involving two teenage girls who died after being adopted by their foster families. After just a few hours as the agency’s director, Foxhoven said what he knows about the cases is what he’s learned from media reports.
“These are terrible tragedies. They’re awful. It sickens me and shocks me,” Foxhoven said, “but I certainly know if kids have come to our attention and they end up the way these kids ended up, that we need to look and say: ‘How did this happen and what do we need to change it so that it doesn’t happen again?'”
Foxhoven is a 64-year-old attorney and Drake Law School professor who has spent his career as a child advocate. He led several groups that advised the department on the foster care system and juvenile detention. Foxhoven said after a conversation with Governor Kim Reynolds, she “fired me up” about taking the reins at DHS.
“I felt like going to the Kentucky Derby and being one of the horses behind that gate, saying: ‘Open that gate. I want to run!'” Foxhoven said. “And so I’m excited about it.”
Reynolds told reporters earlier this month she was looking for a DHS director who wasn’t “afraid…to do things differently.” Foxhoven says he’s a “mission-driven” person and the governor gave him a pretty simple mission.
“What she didn’t say was: ‘Keep me out of the newspaper. We’re looking bad. Help me look good.” She never said that,” Foxhoven said. “What she did say to me is: ‘Tell us whatever it is we need to do to make it safer for kids in Iowa,’ and so that made it really easy to say: ‘I want to do this.'”
Foxhoven grew up in Yankton, South Dakota, in what he describes as a “working-class family.”
“I never doubted in my mind that my mom and dad loved me and so looking at kids where they don’t have that, it was pretty easy to say: ‘You know, I want to step up for them,'” Foxhoven told Radio Iowa as he described choosing a career in family and juvenile court. “Families who are struggling being able to take care of those kids and provide them with what they know they really want, it’s pretty easy to step up for them and people who are stepping forward to say: ‘I’m willing to make a difference for those kids. I’ll foster them or adopt them or whatever,’ it’s pretty easy for me to say: ‘That’s somebody that I want to help.'”
Foxhoven got a degree from Morningside College in Sioux City, majoring in history and political science. After earning a law degree from Drake University, he stayed to work in central Iowa.
The top-ranking Democrat on the State Senate’s Human Resources Committee called Foxhoven’s hiring “a positive step.”
“His inclusive style will serve him well as he digs into the work that needs to be done with the department and the issues around the Medicaid to managed care transition,” Senator Liz Mathis, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids, said in a written statement.
The Iowa Department of Human Services manages a variety of welfare programs, including SNAP benefits, commonly referred to as “food stamps” as well as Medicaid, which is government-paid health care for low-income, disabled and elderly Americans. The agency also oversees state institutions in Independence and Cherokee for patients with acute mental illnesses, as well as the Glenwood and Woodward State Resource Centers which offer residential care for mentally disabled patients.
The Iowa Juvenile Home for delinquent teenage girls was closed in 2014 after allegations of abuse and excessive use of isolation rooms, but the DHS still manages the State Training School in Eldora for delinquent teenage boys.