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Iowa DHS Director Says State Is Embracing Child Welfare System Changes To Keep Families Together

John Pemble/IPR file
Iowa Public Radio
Iowa DHS Director Jerry Foxhoven

Iowa’s Department of Human Services says the state’s foster care system has come a long way in helping children in unsafe home situations, but there’s more that needs to be done. The state is embracing a federal law passed earlier this year that supports keeping families together.
The Family First Prevention Services Act passed in February aims to provide services like mental health and substance abuse treatment to families before their child is pushed into the foster care system.

During a visit to Sioux City on Tuesday, Iowa Department of Human Services Director Jerry Foxhoven said his department is already embracing this legislation because of the focus on family. It will take about two years to implement, but Foxhoven said the legislation will allow parents and their children to stick together while parents are getting the treatment they need.

“If they need to have some kind of inpatient mental health treatment they should be able to do it with their kids with them,” Foxhoven said. “We should be able to provide all kinds of services that the kids stay with the parents.”

Foxhoven says the state has already been doing a better job in placing children with family relatives rather than with non-relatives or strangers. By placing a child with a relative, the hope is they’ll still be connected with their parents, he said.

“No. 1, we know the family is committed forever. No. 2, if the parents get their act together in the future, if the placement is with a relative, there’s a chance the parent could still be part of their life if they do get it back together, so we always think that’s a good thing,” Foxhoven said.

Foxhoven said the family first policy would strenghten the state's efforts in creating resources it doesn't yet have, to better help families. One downside he acknowledged is that the federal government won't pay for children to stay in shelters for longer than two weeks.

"We all know there's kids in shelters longer than two weeks," Foxhoven said. "We also all know they shouldn't be." 

When Native Americans Are Placed In The Child Welfare System

In northwest Iowa, a disproportionate number of children in the Native American community have been placed in the child welfare system – in non-Native homes. Foxhoven said the numbers are improving. In recent years, Woodbury County has placed 68 percent of Native children entering the welfare system with Native families, he said.

Foxhoven said 30 to 40 years ago, the state had no Native American foster parents, so any time a Native American child was removed from a home, they were placed with a white family. In the last budget year, the state only removed three native kids from their homes in the area and they were all placed with Native families.

But Frank LaMere, a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, said the removal of these children from their Native homes means they’re “terminated” and they’ve lost parental rights. Though he says progress has been made and Native Americans have been collaborating with the state to work through the challenges of the child welfare system, too many Native American children are being placed in foster care.

“We come together all the time and ask why,” LaMere said. “If it has to do with a need for healing in our Native community, tell us that. But we do not want our children to be treated any differently than others in the child welfare system and we’re very diligent in that regard.”

LaMere says he wants to see zero children removed from their Native homes. He heard 15 years ago, and said he still hears today, that the children in the Native American community “feed the [child welfare] system.”

“We want our children in our homes, we want them in Native homes and that’s what we’re working towards,” LaMere said.

Members of the Native American community will hold their 16th annual Memorial March to Honor Lost Children on Wednesday, memorializing Native American children who were placed in foster care.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.