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Democrats Grill DHS Chief on Foster Care Deaths

Joyce Russell/IPR
Dept. of Human Services Director Jerry Foxhoven

The head of the Iowa Department of Human Services took tough questions yesterday at the statehouse about a report commissioned following the deaths of two young Iowans who were adopted out of foster care.   An outside agency looked at Iowa’s foster care system and at the caseloads for DHS social workers.   Director Jerry Foxhoven said the problems won’t be solved overnight.  

The review came after the deaths of teenagers Natalie Finn of West Des Moines and Sabrina Ray of Perry. Both were adopted out of foster care and died under the care of their adoptive parents.   DHS Director Jerry Foxhoven said the department is asking a basic question.

We're going to make all the changes that need to be made. -DHS Dir. Jerry Foxhoven

“How the people that did this became foster parents to begin with,” Foxhoven said to members of the House and Senate Oversight committees in a packed committee room.  

Foxhoven explained some of the shortfalls in Iowa’s foster care system, and what he’s doing to correct them.    

He says he wants new oversight of parents who foster kids and then adopt them.  Also, currently choosing foster care parents is contracted out. Foxhoven says that’s under review.    

“If a parent isn't a great parent, God picked them, they don’t have to be perfect,” Foxhoven said. “But if we picked them they better be good.  

“We’re going to do a better job on that,” Foxhoven said.

Credit Joyce Russell/IPR
Sen. Matt McCoy (D-Des Moines)

Foxhoven said the outside review highlights strong points at DHS, including a stable workforce of social workers who are well-paid.     But the report also concludes that morale is low and caseloads are too high.   

“I read the report and that's got some pretty bad things in there,” said Sen. Rob Hogg (D-Cedar Rapids.)

From the report, Hogg cites inadequate training for workers, insufficient meetings with caseworkers,  and cookie-cutter plans for troubled families.     

Foxhoven said he’s working on efficiencies to ease caseloads.    And he said workers are hopeful about their new leadership.  

“We’re going to make all the changes that need to be made,” Foxhoven said.

“That's good,” Hogg replied.  “Is there anything you need from the Iowa legislature?”

“Not that I know,” Foxhoven replied.

Don't tell us everything's rosy when you need resources. -Sen. Matt McCoy

That didn’t set well with other Democrats on the committee.

“Earlier you said you don't need anything more from the legislature,” said Rep. Mary Wolfe (D-Clinton).  “But it sounds to me like you need more caseworkers.”

“At what point will you be asking for these resources?” asked Sen. Matt McCoy (D-Des Moines). 

McCoy said there are more than 1100 fewer DHS workers now than in 2010. The agency took $16 million  in cuts to field staff last year.   And Gov. Reynolds recommends more cuts to DHS to balance this year’s budget.

“You’ve got to tell the legislature what you need and that might mean ticking off the governor’s office  and getting yourself fired,” McCoy said.  “Don’t tell us everything's rosy when you need resources.”   

The Republican co-chair on the Oversight Committee, Sen. Michael Breitbach (R-Strawberry Point), appreciated hearing what the outside review concluded DHS was doing right.

If you read the paper last year everything has been negative. -Sen. Michael Breitbach

“It was good to see something positive,” Breitbach said.   “If you read the paper the last year everything has been negative.”

Director Foxhoven said he will appoint a task force of field workers, administrators, and child welfare advocates to look at the recommendations of the outside review and then expand it in response to last year’s tragic deaths.

Follow Joyce Russell on Twitter:   @russell_ipr