Iowa considers new approach to child abuse reports

DES MOINES – The Iowa Department of Human Services is on the verge of taking a less-confrontational approach toward adults accused of minor acts of child neglect, saying the agency wants to better balance the rights of adults with the need to protect children.

A bill allowing the new policy was unanimously approved by the Senate and the House. If signed into law by Gov. Terry Branstad, the new system would take effect in January.

Iowa is following at least 23 other states in implementing such a system, which ends the once standard process of conducting a full investigation of all child abuse reports, even when it seemed clear a child wasn’t in imminent danger.

The new system creates a two-track process that requires a full investigation in cases involving sexual, physical and substance abuse, but if the Department of Human Services decides a child isn’t at immediate risk, caseworkers can take three days to respond. And when they do respond, caseworkers would focus more on connecting parents with services they need to properly care for a child – an approach called a family assessment.

“In the current system, our approach to every case was looking for a victim and a perpetrator,” said agency spokesman Roger Munns. “The new way is a looking at the needs of a family and finding a way to do the least amount of intervention possible.”

Neglect accounted for about 80 percent of the 11,637 child abuse cases in Iowa last year, but almost a quarter of those abuses were considered minor because there was no indication of sexual abuse, physical harm or presence of illegal drugs and substance abuse around the child.

The department found many of the less-serious cases stemmed from families in poverty who simply needed better access to services.

“A child might not receive the right kind of nutrition or might come to school with improper clothing, not because the parents didn’t care about the child, it’s because they couldn’t afford the right type of clothing,” said bill sponsor Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo.

Dotzler described the current system, which requires DHS caseworkers to respond within 24 hours to reports of child abuse, “like sending a SWAT team to take a cat out of a tree.”

The new approach gives caseworkers a chance to work with the family and let them describe their situation without fear of losing custody of their child, Dotzler said.

Stephen Scott, executive director of the nonprofit group Prevent Child Abuse Iowa, said the change makes sense, but he worries that delays in evaluating cases could be dangerous.

“Having the response be not prompt enough is one concern,” he said.

Scott said he hopes the agency takes a conservative approach and does quick evaluations if there is any risk to a child.

Julie Allison, the health department’s bureau chief of child and welfare protective services, said child safety won’t be compromised under the new plan.

“If a child is unsafe, they are kicked over to the child abuse assessment side,” she said.