2 abuse cases, 2 very different responses by Iowa lawmakers
The death of a 16-year-old Iowa girl has led to finger-pointing at the Legislature, and it's an indication of how much has changed in the 17 years since the death of another child prompted a bipartisan inquiry and passage of legislation to protect children from abuse.
Five months after the death of Natalie Finn, Republican lawmakers have been split over whether to investigate her treatment. The governor has criticized a senator who spoke out about the case and Democrats have accused GOP leaders of being reluctant to take up the matter because of possible questions about reduced state staffing.
The response was different after the January 2000 death of Shelby Duis, a 2-year-old from Spirit Lake. Her killing prompted then-Gov. Tom Vilsack to speak at a public hearing in the northwest Iowa city and discuss the case on national television. The matter dominated that year's legislative session, resulting in legislation that today allows lawmakers to review confidential child abuse records. It eventually led to a tougher child endangerment law and a commitment from Vilsack to spend millions more combating abuse. Sen. David Johnson, an independent who served in the House in 2000, said at that time, both parties worked to understand why Shelby died despite warnings to the Department of Human Services. Johnson recalled former Senate President Mary Kramer, a Republican, encouraged bipartisan cooperation. "Do you see that here today? No, you don't," he said. "You don't see that with Natalie Finn." Following Shelby's death, police charged her mother and live-in boyfriend. Her mother was convicted and the boyfriend was acquitted. In the Finn case, the West Des Moines teenager died last October from what a medical examiner called denial of critical care. Prosecutors say the girl was starved and tortured by her parents, who have pleaded not guilty to charges related to her death. Although school administrators reported suspected abuse to officials, she wasn't removed from her home. Sen. Matt McCoy, a Des Moines Democrat, has been seeking Senate oversight committee hearings about the matter, and he's criticized the panel's Republican chairman for not organizing meetings. That lawmaker, Sen. Michael Breitbach, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. McCoy and other Democrats organized informal hearings, and DHS officials attended at least one. But DHS Director Charles Palmer recently declined to send agency staffers to a follow-up meeting. Gov. Terry Branstad has claimed McCoy is politicizing the girl's death. On Thursday, Republican Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, who chairs the House oversight committee, announced he'd hold hearings to examine child welfare services following Natalie's death, but he also criticized McCoy, saying he had shared confidential information. McCoy denied that and accused Branstad and DHS of trying to avoid questions about the agency's role in keeping track of Natalie, who had been cared for through Iowa's foster care and adoption program. Johnson, the independent from Ocheyedan, said a non-partisan response to Natalie's death has been especially hard to achieve during a legislative session in which Democrats have been angered over Republican moves on a number of bills. The budget also plays a role in the discussion, said Sen. Bill Dotzler, a Waterloo Democrat who was in the House in 2000. He noted Branstad has prioritized reducing the size of government since returning to office in 2011. Dotzler argued that ensuring children are safe would require DHS to hire more workers, a move that could be difficult as the state deals with budget shortfalls and Republicans look for ways to reduce taxes. "They don't want us talking about it because it points out the real flaws in their philosophy," he said. Branstad spokesman Ben Hammes didn't comment on the budget but emphasized the governor believes legislative action should wait amid a criminal investigation. "The last thing we ought to do is have the politicians screw this up and not cause justice to be done for this tragic incident," Branstad said this month. After Kaufmann's announcement, Hammes said in an email the administration "would support an effort by legislators to learn more information about the overall adoption, child welfare and foster care systems at the Department of Human Services." DHS spokeswoman Amy McCoy said the agency has met with some lawmakers for confidential briefings about the case, and she said the House committee investigation will allow DHS to let the public know about its processes, though the state will be prohibited by law from discussing Natalie's case. She also said reductions in DHS staffing have not affected social workers. She noted the department took "personnel action" after Natalie's death, and there is an ongoing investigation into the case by the independent ombudsman's office. Ombudsman Kristie Hirschman said Thursday she couldn't provide a timetable on a pending report because her office was still collecting information. The ombudsman's office also investigated Shelby's death and released a report in December 2000. Legislation that changed Iowa's child endangerment law passed in 2001. Liz Cox, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Iowa, said the correct legislative response is probably somewhere in the middle of seeking immediate action and carefully reviewing what went wrong. She noted the issue is complicated. "If this is truly a systemic issue, it's going to take more than one legislative action to address the problem," she said. Kaufmann, of Wilton, said his oversight committee can meet year-round, meaning his investigation can continue after the current session wraps up. Sen. McCoy, who was in the Legislature in 2000, questioned Branstad's leadership and said rather than criticize him, Branstad should work to improve the child welfare system. "I resent the governor's tactics," he said. "It's part of an effort to conceal and cover up, and I use those words knowing full well what that means."