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Investigation Finds DHS Could Have Prevented Abuse Death Of Iowa Teen

The cover of the state ombudsman's investigative report on the 2017 death of Sabrina Ray.
Courtesy Iowa Office of Ombudsman
The cover of the state ombudsman's investigative report on the 2017 death of Sabrina Ray.

An investigation by the state ombudsman released Tuesday found the 2017 abuse and starvation death of 16-year-old Sabrina Ray could have been prevented by the Iowa Department of Human Services.

The report says DHS received 11 child abuse reports against Ray’s adoptive parents between 2010 and 2015. Marc and Misty Ray had foster kids, adopted four children, and ran a daycare in their home.

The investigation found DHS workers wrongly rejected the abuse complaints, even as they were regularly in contact with the Ray family.

“The Ombudsman, in its scrutiny of DHS files and interviews with staff, found that many of the allegations could have been handled with more vigor, and with greater skepticism of the Rays’ explanations,” a news release accompanying the report reads.

The child abuse reports noted that Sabrina Ray looked very thin and unhealthy, and accused the Rays of forcing their foster children to eat their own vomit, and of beating and belittling their adopted and foster children.

The investigation found shortcomings in training, communication between officials, and record keeping at DHS that prevented workers from addressing child abuse in the Ray family.

In one example, a DHS daycare inspector who visited the home failed to check Sabrina Ray’s bedroom just months before she died there. Investigators later found squalid conditions, as well as locks and alarms on the doors and windows. And one contractor who raised concerns about the Rays in 2014 said she was verbally reprimanded by her supervisors.

In the report, Ombudsman Kristie Hirschman wrote that the investigation brought her to tears and made her angry.

“Angry that so many trained officials at DHS had misplaced their trust in individuals that were so depraved,” Hirschman wrote. “Angry that, once again, an undersized budget contributed to the lack of rigorous oversight of key DHS functions. Angry that the state paid Sabrina’s adoptive parents more than $640,000 between 2006 and 2017 to care for children, while they abused some of those children.”

An autopsy report determined Sabrina died of severe malnutrition due to denial of critical care. Marc and Misty Ray, and Sabrina’s grandmother, cousin and brother were sentenced to prison.

Earlier this year, the ombudsman released a report on the death of 16-year-old Natalie Finn. That report found DHS had poor documentation of abuse intake reports that led workers to not investigate serious allegations.

“We were all deeply saddened by the loss of both Sabrina [Ray] and Natalie [Finn],” a DHS spokesperson said in a statement. “We are committed to learning from these tragedies so we can improve the safety net DHS provides for Iowa’s children.”

The state ombudsman made several recommendations to DHS for improving Iowa’s child abuse intake and assessment, daycare licensing, foster care licensing and foster care services.

DHS has accepted most of the recommendations made in the Ray report, and has implemented some of the recommendations from the Finn report.

Hirschman urged Iowans to be vigilant about reporting suspected child abuse, especially as more children are staying home from school during the coronavirus pandemic.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter