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Iowa officials plan to overhaul the child welfare system

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Noah Silliman
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Iowa Department of Health and Human Services officials say they have hired an outside company to help overhaul its current child welfare system.

Iowa Health and Human Services officials said they have started the process to significantly update the state’s child welfare system.

At the Council on Human Services meeting on Thursday, state officials said they are completely rebuilding their IT system and have hired an outside company to help overhaul their child welfare system.

The state has contracted with the Change and Innovation Agency, or C!A, to update state policies and procedures to best serve Iowa children and families.

"Quite simply the question that we need to be able to answer is, 'Are families better off because HHS knocked on their door?' And unfortunately too often the answer is no," said Janee Harvey, the division administrator of Adult, Children and Family Services at DHHS.

“We have missed opportunities to connect families to concrete goods and economic supports, or maybe community-based programs that can provide stability within their homes," Harvey said.

The company will conduct interviews with staff and "key system stakeholders" like foster parents and community partners to help redevelop the state's entire child welfare process, from intake to case closure, said Harvey.

"They're going to be evaluating our existing policies and procedures and will also be supporting us in our technology assessment, including reviewing and determining what functionality we should be deploying in our state to best serve our families," she said.

C!A will produce a preliminary report in January, followed by an initial report including caseload and workforce needs in April. The company will produce a final report in August that will go to HHS leadership, Gov. Kim Reynolds and legislators.

Officials said the state started the process of overhauling its IT system in January.

Harvey said it is expected to take three years to completely replace the current system, which she said is so "archaic" it's causing workforce retention issues.

"You have to use F7, F12, F1 buttons to navigate through the system," she said. "We literally have had staff see it, try to learn it, and they're like, 'I can't. I want to do this work. I can't learn the technology you're telling me to learn.'"

Harvey said when caseworkers have to spend more time on technology, they're spending less time with the families on their caseload.

"That is not what you want. We want our social workers to be spending a maximum amount of time with the children, with the parents, giving them support, connecting them to services," she said.

The system overhaul comes after Iowa has seen several high profile child abuse cases highlighting failures in its current system, including the deaths of teens Natalie Finn and Sabrina Ray.

Finn, a 16-year-old in West Des Moines, starved to death under the care of her adoptive parents in 2016.

A 2020 report by the state government ombudsman's office found multiple child abuse reports were filed on behalf of Finn, but Department of Human Services officials failed to follow up on the reports and follow department procedures.

Ray was another 16-year-old Iowan who starved to death under the care of her adoptive parents in 2017.

A report on Ray released by the ombudsman's office several months after its report on Finn drew similar conclusions. It found DHS workers wrongly rejected multiple child abuse reports filed for Ray ultimately leading to her death from severe malnutrition.

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter