Legislators on the Government Oversight Committees from the Iowa House and Senate have launched their public review of the state’s foster care system and how allegations of child abuse are handled.
The move comes after two teenage girls who’d been adopted by foster parents died in their new parents’ homes. Vern Armstrong, head of field operations for the department, testified before lawmakers this morning.
“I’m sorry. I’m a little emotional,” Armstrong said, tearing up. “…This hits us. Our people care — deeply.”
Armstrong’s agency announced as the hearing began that a consultant had been hired to conduct “a broad review of the state’s child welfare system.” Wendy Rickman, head of the Adult, Children and Family Services in the Department of Human Services, told lawmakers screening questions for foster parents will be carefully examined to — hopefully — provide a better way of identifying “red flags.”
“There is not a person that sits down to do a home study with us and says: ‘I would like to get kids and be paid for it and I intend to harm them,'” she said. “…If it were that easy, we could fix it.”
During her weekly news conference this morning, Governor Kim Reynolds said the number of “child protective workers” has increased since 2012. Agency administrators told lawmakers there’s been “status quo” staffing for child abuse investigations and follow-up monitoring in the homes where abuse is alleged. Representative Dave Heaton, a Republican from Mount Pleasant, then questioned how the department’s workers are deployed.
“All I hear from foster parents is my person who can assist me is 60 miles away. That’s not right,” Heaton said. “And at the same time we’ve got people deciding a qualified foster family and they don’t even know them.”
An agency official told lawmakers there’s not much turnover among child protective workers compared to turnover in other state government jobs. Assistant Polk County Attorney Andrea Vitzthum disputed that. Vitzthum works in juvenile court and she says the state social workers she sees suffer from “vicarious trauma” and many leave what they consider “thankless jobs.”
“When we question what is going wrong at DHS, I think we all have to look in the mirror,” Vitzthum said. “This agency has been asked to do more with less for many years.”
Assistant Linn County Attorney Lance Heeren said county prosecutors consider “every” DHS worker to be “very dedicated” to helping kids, but their case loads are becoming unmanageable.
“Unless the people of Iowa and their representatives at the legislature are willing to increase funding, we have to look for other solutions,” Heeren said.
The hearing started at 9 a.m. today and is scheduled to last more than six hours.