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Report Finds DHS Mishandled Case In Teen's Death

Michael Zamora
The Des Moines Register via AP, Pool
Nicole Finn stands as she is handcuffed by officers Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, after a jury found her guilty on kidnapping and murder charges in the starvation death of 16-year-old Natalie Finn at the Polk County Courthouse.

Multiple child abuse reports to the Department of Human Services were mishandled leading up to the death of West Des Moines teenager Natalie Finn, according to a report released Monday by the state government ombudsman's office.

Finn starved to death under the care of her adoptive parents in 2016. The 16-year-old was so emaciated that she went into cardiac arrest.

The 160-page report says fourteen child abuse reports were made on behalf of Finn and her two siblings between 2005 and 2016. But some of the older reports between 2005 and 2009 were "scant" or unavailable for review because of recordkeeping policies. Others were improperly rejected, including reports from school officials who said Natalie was "starving" and "very thin."

The children never should have had to endure the treatment that they received. We take this, and I take this, personally. - DHS Director Kelly Garcia

The report concluded that DHS failed to interview key witnesses, the case had "procedural irregularities," and was "allowed to languish for extensive periods of time."

"The children never should have had to endure the treatment that they received. We take this, and I take this, personally," said DHS Director Kelly Garcia. "We are all incredibly impacted by the loss and we're committed to having a team that is able to support families moving forward."

Garcia said the department has been working on systemic changes during the investigation and plans to ask the legislature for additional funding for field officers.

"We’re also looking at how to best staff this work, adding additional team members and looking forward to an environment where we might be able to take calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week," she said.

The report expressed concerns that DHS had enough staff to cover an increase in calls. Since Finn's death in October 2016, child abuse calls have increased significantly resulting in a 36 percent increase to field workers' caseloads.

Garcia said while the department is waiting on funding for more staff, it's also working on ways to better support current staff members, including improving work spaces and bringing in emotional support dogs.

"Not only in that upfront training, but really on the back end investment of ensuring that our team members have a trauma-informed response and a support for both the mental and emotional fortitude it takes to do this job," Garcia said.

According to the report, when West Des Moines police officers arrived at the home, they found the teen unresponsive, appearing "thin" and "malnourished." She weighed just 66 pounds when she was taken to Blank Children's Hospital where she died the next day. 

Finn's two biological siblings were also were severely underweight and had bed sores. They spent months in the hospital recovering.

Following her death, investigators interviewed family members who reported their adoptive mother, Nicole Finn, would not allow the children to leave their room, which was equipped with an alarm, or eat without permission.

A Polk County judge sentenced Nicole Finn to four life sentences in January 2018.

One child testified at Nicole Finn's trial that at one point they hung a sign from their bedroom window that read, "Need food and money" and that the children slept on the linoleum floor with blankets and pillows.

Several months after that trial, another Polk County judge sentenced Natalie's father, Joseph Finn, to 30 years in prison. At the time of Natalie's death, her parents were divorced and living seperately, but Joseph Finn would still help with the children.  

The report also cites the failure of other agencies to oversee the case. The Child Fatality Review Committee, which was created by Iowa lawmakers following the death of Shelly Duis in 2000, has never convened. The committee is tasked with overseeing DHS child abuse cases.

State government ombudsman Kristie Hirschman has made 14 recommendations to DHS including reviewing the child abuse intake unit, changing its record retention policy and developing a new policy for intake workers to read back reports to confirm details.

DHS has accepted 11 of the recommendations. Of the three recommendations the agency did not accept, Garcia said the department needs to look into more details around creating an online reporting system, will consult with the legislature about changing the record retention policy and already has a system in place for reviewing and confirming report details.

The ombudsman's office said it will continue to monitor DHS.

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter