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Tag Archives: Iowa Department of Human Services

Disclose details in abuse cases sooner

It’s impossible to know how many young lives are saved because social workers do their jobs by intervening when children are abused or neglected. But when the Iowa Department of Human Services is involved with a child who is seriously injured or dies as a result of abuse, everyone starts asking questions.

What actions, if any, did workers take to protect the child? Were mistakes made? Did the state do its job?

The public has a right to answers, including details, about state involvement with a child.

Right now, the public isn’t getting this information in a timely manner.

Iowa lawmakers should take additional steps toward openness in abuse cases. Previous legislative attempts to shed light on the inner workings of DHS didn’t go far enough.

Those efforts came after Spirit Lake toddler Shelby Duis died in 2000, after enduring months of physical and sexual abuse. The public was outraged. People came forward to say they’d reported abuse to the agency. A physician said he had contacted the state after treating Shelby for a broken hand.

But DHS was silent about its involvement with the little girl.

And that silence was required by state law, which prohibited the disclosure of child-abuse records to the public. Lawmakers made changes, which included adding the governor and legislative leaders to the list of those to whom the information could be revealed – but prohibited sharing it more broadly.

A few years later, the Legislature allowed public disclosure of details in certain child-abuse cases in response to statements made by individuals involved in the case, such as a parent going public with their story.

Lawmakers didn’t go far enough.

Whereas DHS used to cite state law in withholding information on abuse cases, now it cites county prosecutors as the reason.

That’s the case with requests for information about the agency’s involvement with Ethan Neiderbach.

In May, the Des Moines infant was born with a controlled substance in his body – which brought him to the attention of DHS. A few weeks later, he was taken to the hospital with a broken arm. Less than a month after that, he arrived at the hospital “lifeless,” according to a police report. His condition remains dire, and his parents have been charged with felony child endangerment, with both entering not-guilty pleas this week. Current law allows for child-abuse information to be made public in the event of fatal or near-fatal abuse. But the law requires DHS to consult with county attorneys – who may be pursuing charges against alleged abusers – before releasing records.

And the prosecutors always recommend against it. In at least eight abuse cases in 2007 and 2008 that resulted in death the records still remain confidential.

“It does not serve us well to not have people know what we did. On the other hand, we can see how the director is not going to go against the advice of a prosecutor,” said DHS spokesperson Roger Munns.

Law-enforcement authorities understandably want to avoid public disclosures that could compromise their investigations. But the public has a right to information without needless delay to determine whether the state did all it could to prevent a tragedy.

The Iowa Legislature should change the law to require information be made public after the initial criminal prosecution is complete, so the secrecy doesn’t drag on for years during appeals.

A few years after the Duis tragedy, then-director of DHS Jessie Rasmussen said she wished she would have “pushed the limits” of what she shared with the public, rather than listening to lawyers telling her to keep quiet.

When DHS doesn’t tell its side of the story, that leaves the public in the dark about how the state is operating. It frustrates human-services workers who want to explain what happened. Change the law to ensure silence does not extend beyond a reasonable time.

DHS to increase scrutiny of suspicious child injuries

By LEE ROOD • • September 1, 2009

More suspicious injuries to children will be reviewed by paid teams of medical professionals in an attempt to thwart preventable abuse, Iowa’s human services chief said Monday.

Department of Human Services Director Charles Krogmeier said the small teams of medical professionals he is creating will provide “a quick and authoritative review” in instances where there is disagreement over the cause of a child’s injuries.

Krogmeier outlined the change in a letter sent Monday to Gov. Chet Culver.

The change came on the same day that two Des Moines parents – Jonas Neiderbach and Jherica Richardson, both 20 – were arraigned on felony child endangerment charges in connection with their infant son’s near-fatal injuries in June.

The case has received extensive public attention and raised questions anew among lawmakers and others in the child-welfare system over whether professionals have responded appropriately to red flags before children’s serious injuries or deaths from abuse.

Ethan Neiderbach was born with marijuana in his system and suffered a broken arm before he was a month old – abuse that was reviewed by DHS workers, screened by medical professionals and brought to the attention of state prosecutors, The Des Moines Register has learned.

Yet he remained in his parents’ care, where he ultimately suffered multiple rib fractures and brain trauma before being taken unresponsive to a Des Moines hospital at 7 weeks old.

In his letter to Culver, Krogmeier did not address the Neiderbach case specifically. Nor did he take responsibility for any missteps or identify places where the child-welfare system failed.

The Neiderbach case is similar to several other child deaths or near deaths since 2000 that have been examined by the Register. All have involved children who were returned home despite serious injuries and other signs of possible abuse.

A handful of state lawmakers and Culver have expressed interest in making policy changes to try to better protect children who come to the attention of the child-welfare system but are subsequently injured. However, prevention experts and advocates said Monday that it is difficult to evaluate whether Krogmeier’s move would have been sufficient in dealing with the most recent case.

“We really cannot assess whether this is the right step, because we really don’t know what happened,” said Steve Scott, who heads Prevent Child Abuse Iowa. “Any ability by state legislators to respond appropriately is compromised when there’s no access to information.”

Child-protection workers ultimately confirmed child abuse in three different assessments, finding abuse against Richardson for pot use, Neiderbach for Ethan’s broken arm and both parents for the baby’s near fatal injuries on July 8.

To date, however, DHS has not made public the agency’s own review of how professionals responded to the Neiderbach case. Iowa’s state ombudsman, who has authority to look into such cases, also has requested the outcome of DHS’s internal review and has not yet received a response.

DHS has not made public any child-abuse reports involving child deaths or near-deaths in recent years, even though legislators changed state law a few years ago to allow the agency to do so.

Krogmeier, who took over the helm of DHS in May, said on Monday that he is not recommending more openness in such cases because of privacy concerns and because county attorneys routinely request that abuse assessments remain confidential.

“We’ve been asked by county attorneys to keep that information private, and we respect that relationship,” he said.

But Scott, some judges, advocates and others have said that without more information, others cannot determine whether appropriate steps or policy changes are being taken in individual cases. Some have questioned what the state is protecting, given that DHS reports would be provided to alleged abusers and their attorneys in criminal proceedings.

State Rep. Mark Smith, who chairs the House Human Resources Committee, said legislators should take another look at the lack of transparency. “It’s something we should talk about,” said Smith, a Marshalltown Democrat.

Before Monday’s announcement, DHS already had the authority to assemble multidisciplinary teams of doctors, social workers, prosecutors and others to help assess possible abuse.

As far back as 2000, state ombudsman William Angrick called for DHS to review those groups’ work. However, their reach and effectiveness is still in question today.

In his letter, Krogmeier said a recent review of child-abuse regulations showed “differing medical opinions may prevent the DHS from taking action to protect children.”

Professionals who make up the new teams will likely be paid on a retainer, per-case basis or hourly rate, Krogmeier said. “It doesn’t happen all that often where we have conflicting medical opinions or where cases aren’t clear. It’s not going to cost us in the millions of dollars,” he said.

He also asked that law enforcement and court officials consider a proposal that would require more speedy enforcement of protective orders issued by juvenile courts in child abuse cases.

Many states have teams that review cases of alleged abuse. It was unclear Monday whether any states retain medical professionals.

Grandparents sidestep DHS in bid to protect girl


By JENNIFER JACOBS • • July 27, 2009

Story City, Ia. – Three-year-olds Hailey Byers and Spencer Corson lived as brother and sister in a blended family – until Spencer was killed by what authorities say was violent child abuse.

A year later, Spencer’s homicide remains unsolved, and Hailey’s future hangs in the air: Will she end up back in the same home where Spencer was killed?

“To tell you the truth, we will never give her back,” said Hailey’s paternal grandfather, Bill Byers. “If we did, I know within a couple months she would be dead, and it would look like an accident just like the last one.”

Bill and Ann Byers are Hailey’s guardians – temporarily. Hailey’s father, Casey Byers, 22, asked his parents to agree to a promise before he was killed in action in Iraq: Keep my daughter safe. She was 5 months old when he died in June 2005.

The grandparents have taken unusual steps to try to keep their vow, including sidestepping the Iowa Department of Human Services when they believed child-abuse investigators weren’t doing enough.

DHS is charged under state and federal law with protecting children from abuse. Yet several high-profile child deaths and serious injuries have stirred debate over whether the agency is doing too much or too little to remove at-risk children. The most recent victim: Ethan Neiderbach, a Des Moines infant who was born with marijuana in his system and who suffered a broken arm before he was taken to the emergency room earlier this month with life-threatening injuries.

Custody hearings for Hailey have been postponed indefinitely pending a breakthrough in Spencer’s homicide case. Yet Hailey’s mother, Amanda Porter of Story City, is seeking Hailey’s return to her home.

Porter was the caretaker for Spencer, the son of her live-in boyfriend, when the child was hospitalized for a concussion in April 2008, and again for malnutrition in May 2008. She was also his caretaker in the hours before the unexplained head injury that killed him in June 2008. She has denied all wrongdoing.

But the death was ruled a homicide by a medical examiner, and the investigation is ongoing, Story County Attorney Stephen Holmes said.

Holmes said he couldn’t comment on Spencer’s case beyond saying child death cases can be tricky to solve.

“It’s very difficult when you have an injury that’s even a few days old to know or to even opine that those are crimes,” he said. “Crimes that are committed out of the sight of public rely on circumstantial evidence because you don’t have a witness, and those can be very difficult because you have to essentially reconstruct what happens.”

Since 2000, 64 deaths of children ages 6 and younger were ruled homicides in Iowa, according to the state medical examiner’s office. The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation currently has seven unresolved child homicides dating to 2000. Of the seven, three are from 2009 and will likely be resolved, a DCI spokeswoman said last month.

Grandparents ask judge for emergency custody

Spencer was born with genetic abnormalities, including a cleft palate that required use of a feeding tube, relatives said. He was mentally delayed and couldn’t speak in sentences. He knew some sign language. He ran and played, stacked Lego bricks, did puzzles, was captivated by Elmo, and loved spaghetti and strawberries.

Hailey and Spencer began living as brother and sister when Porter, who is Hailey’s mother, and Stuart Corson, who is Spencer’s father, moved in together in July 2007. Both adults have criminal records, court records show. DHS has been involved with their household at various times, but no children have been removed, DHS records show.

Ann and Bill Byers didn’t think child-abuse investigators were doing enough about their suspicions that their granddaughter, Hailey, was in danger of abuse in fall 2007, when she was 2.

Knowing grandparents have no child custody rights in Iowa, they took a long shot – they went directly to a district court judge, working independently of DHS. DHS works almost exclusively within the juvenile court.

“We asked for (DHS workers’) help, and they refused,” said Ann Byers, a retired 27-year social worker. “They stated that we would have to wait to see what the judge’s decision was, and only at that time would they re-evaluate if service or their cooperation were needed.”

A Story County judge signed a court order granting emergency custody in September 2007 after the Byerses’ lawyer, Angela Campbell of Des Moines, presented troubling evidence the Byerses had documented.

When Bill Byers and a Nevada police officer knocked at Porter’s door with the court order to pick up Hailey, the girl appeared with a bruise circling one eye. Porter said Hailey fell and hit a table.

A month later, a DHS report concluded that Porter’s home in Story City was safe. Porter used that report as evidence in a hearing in April 2008, and the district court ordered Hailey, then 3, be returned to Porter. But the judge gave Ann and Bill Byers visitation on the first five days of each month and ordered DHS to grant them access to any records on “Amanda (Porter) and/or Hailey.”

Spencer dies 3 days before DHS hearing

Two months later, the other toddler in Porter’s care, Spencer, was dead.

A state medical examiner found that the death was a homicide, caused by “abusive head trauma” and “assault by another.”

Spencer and Porter were at the Nevada home of Deb Smith, Porter’s mother, on June 23 when paramedics dispatched by a 911 call found him unresponsive, records show. Spencer was flown by helicopter to Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines, but he was brain dead, according to his family. He was taken off life support the next day.

Ann and Bill Byers didn’t know that the little boy living with their granddaughter had died until Bill pulled up the MySpace page of Stuart Corson, Spencer’s father, and read: “My little guy is gone forever.”

DHS staff didn’t mention the death to the Byerses, they said. The Byerses acknowledge they were not related to Spencer, but pointed out that they had part-time custody of a girl the same age living in the same household.

Nor did DHS tell the grandparents that the death launched a child-abuse investigation into Porter and Corson’s home, or that there had been other abuse investigations in the months before Spencer was killed. DHS was looking into a severe concussion that Spencer sustained in May 2008, when he was flown by helicopter from Ames to Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines; the second time was for malnutrition, records show.

DHS workers didn’t interview the Byerses during any of the investigations into abuse against Spencer, even though his caretaker, Porter, had lived with them for a year and a half, and they’d made past reports about their concerns about her treatment of Hailey.

The Byerses say DHS gave their lawyer copies of Spencer’s medical records, but never complied with the court order regarding release of documents when they asked for DHS reports on investigations into other problems in Hailey’s home. DHS officials maintain they complied with the court order, a spokesman said.

Unbeknownst to the Byerses, a hearing was scheduled for late June 2008 to consider declaring Spencer a child in need of assistance, a status that gives the state more control over a child’s welfare.

Spencer died three days before the hearing.

Byerses say others told DHS of suspicions, too

Stunned by Spencer’s death and worried about Hailey’s safety, the Byerses called authorities. Nevada Police Chief Mike Tupper and DHS child protective worker Jennifer Welton would say little except that the death was under investigation, according to the Byerses.

At the hospital, medical staff observed bruises and a bump on Spencer’s head, a DHS report states. Porter and Corson told DHS “that two days ago he ran into the computer desk in the kitchen,” the report says. “It was reported that the child has a seizure disorder of some sort, but the family had very little information. It was reported that the child had five seizures today and was very sleepy.” They did not seek treatment for the seizures, the DHS report states.

The report, written by Welton, continues: “The bruising appeared inconsistent. … The parents showed very little emotion/reaction. It is not likely that the child will survive.”

During the death investigation, DHS didn’t place Hailey with the Byerses, who by that time had sold their home in Schleswig and had moved to Texas. Instead, DHS placed Hailey with her maternal grandmother, Smith.

The Byerses believe that violated the court order that gave them guardianship when Hailey wasn’t with her mother.

Nine days after Spencer’s death, Bill Byers did an Internet search and found a news report that quoted Spencer’s maternal grandmother, Dianna Rivera-Belle of Ames, saying she had previously reported suspicions of abuse to DHS.

“We realized we weren’t the only ones saying, ‘Help,’ ” said Bill Byers, a former Iowa corrections officer.

Bill Byers called the police chief again. Tupper told him the comments were the result of “disgruntled relatives,” according to Bill Byers. Tupper said tests were being done and that they’d take four to six weeks.

The Byerses, frantic now, called their lawyer, who went before Story County Judge William Pattinson the same day. Pattinson ruled “there is some legitimate concern” Hailey would be in danger at her mother’s home, and ordered temporary custody of Hailey to the Byerses.

Porter has another baby; death still unresolved

Two weeks after Spencer was killed, Porter gave birth to a daughter.

DHS arranged for Erika Corson, now a year old, to live with her paternal grandmother, Tina Meldrem, whose mobile home in Story City is just a few doors down from Porter and Corson’s trailer.

“We’re down there all the time,” Porter said in a short interview last month as she mowed her lawn.

Stuart Corson, who is Erika’s father, has been grieving deeply for his son, said Corson’s mother.

“He loved that boy like nobody’s business, and it’s killing him,” Meldrem said.

Meldrem believes Ann and Bill Byers exaggerated their reports of possible child abuse. “They are unreal on what they’ve said,” she said. “The thing with the Byerses, they started the custody thing a long time ago because their son died in Iraq. They’re trying to live their life through their granddaughter.”

Meldrem defended Porter.

“There’s no one in my family that believes it was Amanda,” Meldrem said. “I’ve never heard Amanda raise her voice to any of the kids, let alone hitting them.”

However, Porter’s mother, Smith, told DHS a slightly different story.

“Deb stated that Amanda yells when she is stressed and she knows that right now they are having some financial difficulty and her pregnancy is difficult,” stated a report from June 2008, shortly after Spencer’s death.

In one court order, Story County Judge Dale Ruigh wrote: “No doubt exists that (Hailey) is presently safe in her grandparents’ care. … The court cannot determine if she will be safe in the care of her mother, despite the best efforts of third parties visiting her home.”

Today, after months of play therapy, Bill Byers said of his granddaughter, “She’s pretty content that she’s safe. She’s happy, she sings, she’s a normal little kid again.”

Porter and Corson hope to get Hailey back soon, Meldrem said.

“She’s never met her little sister,” Meldrem said, referring to Erika. As for Porter and Corson, she said: “They’re just as wonderful around her as they were around Spencer and Hailey.”




2003: Amanda Porter Is convicted of felony kidnapping/child stealing in Woodbury County.

2007: Stuart Corson Is charged with first-offense OWI and, later that year, fourth-degree theft.

JAN. 16, 2005: Hailey Byers is born to Amanda Porter and Casey Byers.

MAY 2, 2005: Spencer Corson is born to Jessica Rivera and Stuart Corson.

JUNE 11, 2005: Byers is killed in Iraq.

JANUARY 2006: Porter asks Casey Byers’ parents, Ann and Bill Byers of Schleswig, if they can take in Hailey. The Byerses learn she has not been to a doctor and needs all her immunizations. Porter moves in soon after.

JUNE 2006: Iowa Department of Human Services investigators document a child abuse finding against Spencer’s mother, Rivera, after she fails to provide 1-year-old Spencer with adequate food. She later gives full custody to Corson.

OCTOBER 2006: Ann and Bill Byers sell their house, buy a recreational vehicle, and take Hailey and Porter with them to winter in Texas.

JUNE 2007: The Byerses, living in a cabin in Nebraska, decide to winter in Texas again. After giving shelter to an unemployed Porter for a year and a half, they offer to buy her and Hailey a house in the Midwest, but tell Porter she’ll need to get a job. Porter moves out.

JULY 2007: The Byerses keep in contact with Porter, who grants visits with Hailey. Three times they take the 2-year-old to the hospital for abscesses due to prolonged contact with wet, soiled diapers. The first time, Hailey requires an IV.

LATE JULY 2007: Porter meets Corson of Story City and moves in with him and his 2-year-old son, Spencer.

SEPTEMBER 2007: The Byerses initiate a welfare check with Nevada police to see if Hailey is healthy. A certified letter to Porter’s address is returned undelivered. The Byerses seek emergency custody. Their lawyer presents Judge Dale Ruigh with the Byers’ documentation of perceived neglect and abuse. Armed with Ruigh’s court order for custody, the Byerses find Hailey, who has a black eye. Porter says she fell and hit a table, relatives say.

LATE SEPTEMBER 2007: Hailey is no longer toilet trained and shows other behavior problems, the Byerses say. A medical exam shows no physical evidence of sexual abuse, they say.

APRIL 7, 2008: A DHS report says that Porter’s home is safe, and Judge William Ostlund transfers back custody of Hailey. But he gives the Byerses visitation, court records show.

APRIL 16, 2008: Spencer suffers a concussion and is flown by helicopter from Ames to Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines. DHS concludes an unknown person failed to provide Spencer with proper supervision and calls the child abuse allegation founded, a DHS report states. The Byerses are not told. Safety services through Youth and Shelter Services in Ames begin.

MAY 1, 2008: Ann and Bill Byers pick up Hailey for their first court-ordered five-day visitation and take her to their Nebraska cabin. She is unusually quiet and inactive, they write in their journal. On the trip back to Ames, they say she cried and said she didn’t want to go home.

MAY 28, 2008: Spencer, 3, is hospitalized for five days for malnutrition. Another abuse investigation begins, and a child-in-need-of-assistance hearing is set. Neither Corson nor Rivera shows up for the hearing, so it is moved to June 27, 2008.

JUNE 23, 2008: Spencer, unresponsive due to a head injury, is again life-flighted. A DHS child abuse investigation begins.

JUNE 24, 2008: Spencer dies at 12:30 p.m.

JUNE 27, 2008: Bill Byers learns of Spencer’s death from Corson’s MySpace page.

JULY 1, 2008: The Byerses pick up Hailey for their five-day visitation. Porter isn’t there, but Corson hands over the girl.

JULY 3, 2008: Judge William Pattinson rules “there is some legitimate concern” Hailey would be in danger if she’s returned to her mother’s home, and orders Hailey to temporarily remain with the Byerses.

JULY 12, 2008: Porter gives birth to Erika Corson. Two days later, DHS decides there’s no basis to request that a judge remove the baby at that time, a DHS report states.

JULY 22, 2008: DHS worker Jennifer Welton can’t confirm abuse in connection with Spencer’s death and “no person is named responsible,” according to her report, signed by her supervisor, Kathy Doyle of the Ames office.

AUG. 11, 2008: Judge Gary McMinimee orders that Hailey be returned to Porter, but postpones the effective date.

SEPT. 26, 2008: Judge Dale Ruigh orders that Ann and Bill Byers keep custody of Hailey until a guardianship trial takes place, court records show. The trial has been postponed indefinitely.

OCTOBER 2008: An autopsy by Polk County Medical Examiner Greg Schmunk concludes Spencer’s death was caused by “abusive head injury” during an “assault by another.”

TODAY: No charges have been filed in connection with Spencer’s death. Hailey remains with the Byerses, who now live in Texas.

Infant’s injuries renew debate on DHS role

By LEE ROOD • • July 26, 2009

As Ethan Neiderbach fights for his life, a debate is being revived over what his injuries should mean.

For people like Nicole Garbis Nolan, the Des Moines infant’s severe head trauma and fractured ribs represent new evidence that Iowa’s revamped system for protecting kids is failing. Rather than quickly removing children at risk of abuse, reforms have emphasized leaving more of them in their homes while working with their parents.

For Richard Wexler, the fact that authorities could have prevented the child’s near-fatal abuse does not necessarily mean more children should be removed.

Yet Garbis Nolan, a Des Moines lawyer charged with protecting children, and Wexler, a national advocate who fights to keep distressed families together, agree on one thing: Without more independent oversight and transparency, no one can know for sure whether the failure to protect one child – or several – signals simple errors in judgment or a more systemic breakdown.

“You don’t want to generalize from the horror stories,” said Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. “The only answer is absolute transparency.”

An unresponsive Ethan Neiderbach was taken to Iowa Methodist Medical Center on July 8, less than a month after he was taken to an emergency room with a broken arm. As has been the case with a handful of other severe abuse cases in recent years, red flags already had been raised with the DHS: Hospital workers made a child-abuse report after Ethan was born May 27 with marijuana in his system.

Ethan’s parents, Jonas Neiderbach and Jherica Richardson, both 20, have since been charged with felony child endangerment. A child-abuse assessment is being completed.

But under state and federal law, nearly all of the details about how professionals intervened in Ethan’s young life – and at least eight other similar cases in 2007 and 2008 that resulted in death – remain confidential:

– Juvenile courtrooms, where many key decisions are made, can be kept open to reporters and the public under Iowa law. The legal threshold for closing child-in-need-of-assistance hearings is whether possible damage to a child outweighs the public’s interest. Yet some judges opt to close the hearings simply if anyone involved objects.

– Iowa lawmakers passed a law a few years ago allowing child-abuse assessments to be made public in the event of fatal or near-fatal abuse. But the legislation also allows for county attorneys to object to the release of those records – and they uniformly do.

“Whenever we have requested it, prosecutors say, ‘Don’t do it,’ ” said Roger Munns, spokesman for the Iowa Department of Human Services.

Lawyers in the child-welfare system say it’s unclear why prosecutors favor such secrecy: Abusers and their lawyers, as well as prosecutors, receive copies of the reports.

– At the same time, thousands of confidential cases of alleged abuse of children are now being funneled to private-sector social workers for investigation. Under the 2004 redesign of Iowa’s child-welfare system, suspicious injuries and parental drug use are not necessarily made known to judges and court-appointed lawyers.

Prosecutors review cases only after social workers decide that formal court intervention is needed.

Since the reforms, the number of families who had children removed during a child-abuse investigation has dropped 24 percent – to 1,447 this year from 1,995 in 2005, new figures released by the DHS show.

Wexler and Garbis Nolan are troubled that no one independent of the DHS is monitoring the cases handled outside the court. Both also believe parents are being denied their right to due process in the revamped, more informal system.

Only a small number of Iowa children are seriously injured or killed each year after coming to the attention of child-welfare workers.

But many people with a stake in the performance of Iowa’s child-welfare system – lawyers, state officials, judges and advocates – believe the public’s right to scrutinize these rare but serious cases trumps any right to privacy.

“It’s critically important,” said Constance Cohen, a Polk County juvenile judge. “We need to know that all children are receiving the protection they are entitled to under the law.”

Just how much transparency and oversight are needed continues to be a source of intense debate nationally.

Cohen said the Neiderbach case, which she was not involved in, appeared to have red flags from what she has read in media accounts. Yet, she added, people involved in child protection need to have “facts to take action, not just a gut feeling.”

Improved safety claims up for debate in Iowa

To those who question whether the Neiderbach case represents a symptom of larger problems, Julie Allison, the DHS bureau chief of protective services, responds: “There can be no doubt that Iowa’s redesigned child welfare system has been a success.”

In a letter to the Des Moines Sunday Register, she described a number of system changes as significant and beneficial: improved intake of abuse reports, more focus on outcomes for children and families, better protection of the most at-risk children, more face-to-face visits, and more hands-on meetings with families.

Those “family team meetings plus the constant monitoring has helped families understand their obligations and to ‘buy in’ to their responsibilities,” Allison said.

DHS-compiled statistics on child safety indicate a slight improvement in the five years since the “Better Results for Kids” changes were phased in. They show a 1.6-percentage-point downturn in children who have suffered new abuse after some sort of DHS intervention.

In the last quarter measured by the DHS in 2009, the percentage of cases in which new abuse was reported six months after intervention was 8.4 percent. In 2004, before the redesign was complete, it was 10 percent.

Allison is pleased with that important statistic, calling the number “extremely difficult” to move. But the change, which has fluctuated since the redesign, is too small to convince skeptics interested in stronger trend lines.

In addition, attorneys like Garbis Nolan say too little is known about the thousands of cases now being handled outside the purview of judges and court-appointed guardians. In the new system, the state rewards private contractors financially if children are kept out of foster care and safely returned to families. At the same time, the attorney says, she and others have learned too late that children have remained in homes with known sex abusers or meth users, or of serious incidents of suspected abuse.

That’s because the DHS first opted to do “safety planning” with the families – as they did in the Neiderbach case – instead of removing children, as they might have in years past. Informal diversion, she said, “can work for speeding tickets and bar fights, but not when you are talking about children’s lives.”

Wexler points out that there were plenty of horror stories in the old system, too, and he says there is no proof children were safer when more children were being removed. A wide body of research, meanwhile, shows children can suffer greatly when stripped of family and placed in foster homes.

It’s too soon to say whether children are truly safer in Iowa’s new system, but fewer children are entering foster care, Wexler said.

Statistics released Friday by the DHS show a 24 percent drop in foster care and out-of-home placements from 2004 to 2008.

His concern about Iowa is that the state continues to have one of the highest rates of removal in the country. States count removals differently, but Wexler’s tally – based on an open-records request for the most recent federal data available – puts Iowa’s rate of removal over the course of a year at sixth in the nation.

At least two other states, Illinois and Alabama, have significantly lower rates of removal as well as independent monitoring of cases, he points out.

“If you can get the same level of safety while exposing fewer children to the enormous inherent harm of foster care, that is an improvement,” he said.

Questions remain about DHS role in latest case

Each year in the past 12 years, anywhere from three to 14 Iowa children under the age of 17 have been homicide victims, according to Iowa’s Child Death Review Team. The number has varied from year to year, though with a small average annual decrease since 2000.

Only a handful of the homicide victims had any sort of recent interaction with the DHS, agency records show. And yet people involved in the child-welfare system say that it’s imperative those cases be examined and that the public knows what happened in each situation.

“You learn from the bad and severe cases,” Garbis Nolan said.

Steve Scott, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Iowa, and several others interviewed for this article say one crucial question that deserves answering in the Neiderbach case is how the physician who first examined the baby’s broken arm decided abuse wasn’t a likely cause.

“That was kind of a linchpin,” he said. “Because if police and social workers don’t have that kind of medical information, there’s little either of them can do. If we find out there was a more firm medical opinion, I would be incredibly distressed.”

Also unknown is what influence, if any, the baby’s grandparents played in decisions allowing Ethan to remain in his parents’ care.

Of concern is whether Jon Neiderbach’s job as a financial analyst at the DHS and his status as a former Des Moines school board member influenced how the case was handled.

Iowa Ombudsman Bill Angrick said his office has made preliminary inquiries with the DHS to see how it plans to handle its internal investigation of the case.

Angrick said the agency’s response will help him decide whether a review is warranted by his office.

“We’ve wanted more than just information about death and near-death cases,” he said. “We wanted evaluations and information to be made available on how DHS was interceding and interacting with the public. If what we’re doing is looking at the tragic cases only, that will be skewed.”



State action too late for other victims of homicide

By LEE ROOD • • July 26, 2009

In only one instance last year did the family of a child who was killed – Antwuan Williams Jr. of Waterloo – have an open child-abuse case pending with the Iowa Department of Human Services.

Roger Munns, a spokesman for the agency, said there were four other abuse fatalities in which the DHS had a tangential connection, “such as assessments on siblings that were either not confirmed or that were confirmed but closed years ago.”

In 2007, families had prior involvement in the child-welfare system in three fatal abuse cases, but those cases involved different children, different perpetrators or both.

The number has been higher: A Des Moines Register investigation in 2000 found that at least nine children had died or were seriously injured over a year’s time after being the subject of prior abuse investigations involving state social workers, medical professionals and others in the child-welfare system. The Legislature later mandated an overhaul of the system.

Little has been reported about the few cases that have happened since the overhaul, largely because records are confidential.

Several county attorneys have declined to release information about deaths and injuries while criminal cases are still pending.

The Register has probed some of the deaths. They include:

Antwuan Williams Jr.: The 8-month-old was unresponsive when medics arrived at his Waterloo home in 2008. A Register investigation showed child-welfare officials had recommended that the parents lose their legal rights to parent – but then changed their minds.

That recommendation came after Antwuan’s parents were deemed responsible in a DHS report for abuse of Antwuan’s sister, Ziarah, who suffered four to six fractures in the fall of 2006, when she was 3 months old.

A juvenile judge later said the couple were “skillful enough to divert attention from themselves, cast potential blame on others and re-injure their children.”

Evelyn Miller: A child-abuse report written about the 5-year-old in April 2005 shows a social worker believed the girl’s family was “functioning well.” Three months later, Evelyn was dead.

Social workers were accused of not digging deep enough into signs the girl was at risk.

Claims over the years that she had been neglected, exposed to drugs and spanked until she was bruised were designated “not confirmed.”

Then in July 2005, Evelyn was taken from her family’s apartment in Floyd County, murdered and dumped in a river. No one has been arrested.

Casey Frederiksen, who was the live-in boyfriend of Evelyn Miller’s mother, pleaded guilty of possessing computer images of children and adults having sex.

Jetseta Gage: Roger Bentley, who was investigated previously by the state for child abuse, kidnapped Jetseta, 10, from her Cedar Rapids house in March 2005. He raped her, bound her feet, tied a plastic bag over her head, and hid her body in a cabinet.

His brother James also molested Jetseta before her death and molested a 1-year-old girl.

Roger Bentley was convicted of molesting a 7-year-old girl in 1994. He served just over two years in prison for the crime.

Camden O’Connor: The 5-month-old died April 17, 2003, after his father left him alone on a leather couch.

Dr. Francis Garrity, deputy state medical examiner, blamed no one. But a state child-protection investigator concluded Camden’s death could have been prevented.

Investigator Kimberly Barnett said human-services workers wanted to remove the baby but were prevented from doing so by a Polk County juvenile prosecutor, who was working with the family through a new mediation project aimed at keeping the child at home.

Three state workers – an investigator, the family’s social worker and a supervisor – had asked the prosecutor to remove the child from O’Connor’s home. The decision never went before a judge.

Like Ethan Neiderbach, Camden first came to the state’s attention after he was born with traces of THC, the active chemical in marijuana, in his system.

Scrutinize handling of Ethan Neiderbach case

July 21, 2009

It sometimes takes a tragedy to remind people of the importance of protecting children from abuse. And it doesn’t get much more tragic than the story of Ethan Neiderbach.

On May 27, 2009, this Des Moines infant was born with a controlled substance in his body. A few weeks later, he was taken to the hospital with a broken arm. Less than a month after that, he arrived at the hospital “lifeless,” according to a police report. Staff revived him with CPR and treated him for life-threatening injuries, including head trauma and fractured ribs. (Why was this child left in this home?  He should have been removed when he tested positive for drugs at birth!  The Iowa CPS failed this child repeatedly and should be held accountable for this child’s death…I don’t care what this news stations says, Iowa CPS is responsible for what happened to this baby!)

Doctors have said injuries appear to have been intentionally inflicted, and the baby’s parents have been arrested and charged with multiple acts of child endangerment.

From the very beginning, the Iowa Department of Human Services has been involved. State social workers are rightly notified when a newborn tests positive for drugs, and evaluate each situation on a case-by-case basis to determine safety. In fact, social workers were setting up safety measures for Ethan when he was hospitalized with head injuries.

Now the agency is pursuing an internal review of the case to make sure procedures were followed, and Gov. Chet Culver said the Division of Criminal Investigation could be called to help.

Everyone – from hospital staff to relatives to state workers – should be scrutinized. Procedures, including how hospitals evaluate injured children to the steps social workers take when they are notified of abuse, must be looked at. If needed, changes should be made.

The truth is, there is nothing simple about the work of protecting children. All involved are charged with making judgments – sometimes life or death judgments – in an effort to keep children safe. Sometimes they have to balance a child’s safety against the trauma of being removed from their family and placed in foster care. And in most cases, a child can only be removed if a judge approves it.

Every day, doctors, teachers and neighbors make decisions about whether to report suspected abuse to state authorities. Last fiscal year, the Department of Human Services completed 22,180 assessments of child-abuse allegations. In one-third of those cases, social workers determined abuse occurred. Workers determine whether children should stay in their homes, receive services, be placed with a relative or moved to foster care.

When it comes to child abuse, hindsight is virtually always 20/20. After the fact, it’s usually clear what should have been done differently.

But when it comes to Ethan, there are no do-overs. So let’s hope his story can offer ways to better move forward – specifically by ensuring adequate child protection in Iowa, which means ensuring adequate funding to do that job.

Because protecting children isn’t free. It takes dollars. Like all states, Iowa is facing difficult budget times. Last year, in the midst of budget cuts, economic-stimulus dollars helped shore up human services and avoid cuts that would have put those already at risk in greater danger.

Next year, this state faces the looming threat of revenue shortfalls and few stimulus dollars. Lawmakers will have the difficult task of working with less money while trying to maintain vital services. The agency charged with protecting children could be facing huge cuts – unacceptable cuts.

Ethan Neiderbach is a reminder to lawmakers that services designed to protect vulnerable Iowans cannot be on the chopping block.

Iowans can debate the role of government – whether it should be more or less involved in everything from health care to gun regulation to abortion rights.

Still, most of us would agree that one of the most fundamental roles of government should be adequately protecting Iowans who can’t protect themselves. Infants can’t protect themselves. Iowa needs to have the procedures in place and adequate resources to do that job.


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