- Associated Press - Monday, June 5, 2017

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - The Iowa agency that oversees the state’s child welfare system is seeking help from a nonprofit group to review its procedures following the death of two teenage girls, the department announced Monday.

The review by the Alabama-based Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group on the Iowa Department of Human Services follows the October 2016 death of Natalie Finn of West Des Moines and the death of Sabrina Ray of Perry last month. The 16-year-old girls, who were both adopted from state care, were found dead in their homes. The adoptive parents of each girl face charges in connection with the deaths.

The announcement was made by DHS spokeswoman Amy McCoy shortly after a joint legislative committee began meeting at the Capitol to discuss the agency’s procedures. The bipartisan panel questioned the state’s process for removing foster children from homes and the workload of social workers who handle such cases.

“The number of intakes are going up and the number of assessments that we’re accepting are going up,” said Vern Armstrong, the DHS division administrator of field operations. “Right now our workers are feeling overwhelmed.”

Both girls had been monitored by DHS before their deaths, according to state lawmakers. Natalie and Sabrina were both foster care children who were removed from public schools and began home schooling once adopted, lawmakers emphasized.

Since the investigations are ongoing, officials from DHS were unable to comment on the specific cases, but lawmakers centered their questions on the shared circumstances.

Wendy Rickman, the DHS division administrator of adult children and family services, stressed that DHS protective service workers do not have the authority in Iowa to remove a child from a parent.

Legislators expressed additional concern that home-schooling for foster children removes them from mandatory abuse reporters, like teachers, and criticized a 2013 law that allowed home school parents to opt out of child welfare monitoring by the state.

“We don’t even know they exist,” said Sen. Matt McCoy, a Democrat and ranking member on the committee. “They go completely dark.”

Rickman outlined the check-steps on various agency practices. Rickman said the agency will examine greater restrictions if recommended.

A high workload and understaffing for child welfare agencies developed as a common theme in testimonies. Republican Sen. Michael Breitbach, committee co-chair, expressed interest in finding a solution to the heavy caseloads and invited DHS case workers to contact him confidentially about their experiences.

While the committee does not have another meeting scheduled, the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group will begin evaluating the department’s resources and recent cases in the coming months.

Sens. Janet Peterson and McCoy criticized DHS for announcing the review so closely to the committee meeting and questioned whether a group brought in by DHS could remain objective.

McCoy accused the agency of trying to “deflect, dodge and dissuade” tough questions.

Rickman disagreed and said the agency is providing documents and coordinating the group’s arrival. She said the agency feels a sense of urgency to make changes to improve the department.

“I have a high level of confidence that they are very competent to do an autonomous program evaluation,” she said. “It is not our intent to have someone run out here, do a report and be done. We will not stand for it. We will not.”

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