- Associated Press - Sunday, May 7, 2017

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Some legislators are voicing skepticism about a state agency’s newly proposed foster care rules, saying they’re not sure they can trust the department and questioning why it’s focusing on seemingly small matters but not addressing bigger issues about child safety.

Although the Department of Human Services’ proposed rule updates address myriad foster care issues, from bedroom requirements to disposal of pet waste, they don’t address the factors that led to high-profile child abuse cases, including the death of a teenage girl last year.

That has led some lawmakers to largely dismiss the agency’s proposals and call for more significant action.

“We obviously have a problem in our state when it comes to the Department of Human Services and the welfare of our kids,” said Republican Rep. Megan Jones. “It’s counterintuitive to add regulations when you can’t enforce the ones we have.”

Wendy Rickman, the agency’s division administrator of Adult Children and Family Services, said the proposed rules presented during a legislative hearing last week weren’t in response to specific abuse cases and preceded recent cases.

Rickman acknowledged the controversies had made the agency’s efforts more complicated.

“On one hand, there’s a push to not be too punitive,” she said. “On the other hand, there are a lot of comments about us not doing enough to protect kids. We are constantly in that balancing act.”

The process for those rules to be enacted requires a public notice period until May 16, during which lawmakers and citizens can voice opinions. Lawmakers have used the time to criticize the agency for digging into the minutia, while also calling for greater overall regulations.

Many legislators have expressed concern since the October death of 16-year-old Nicole Finn, of West Des Moines. She wasn’t removed from her home despite reports to police that she was being neglected. Her parents have been charged in her death and the suspected abuse of two of Natalie’s siblings. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Later, 18-year-old Malayia Knapp also told legislators about her experience suffering abuse from her adoptive mother.

The two cases prompted an ongoing House Oversight Committee investigation into Department of Human Services’ policies. Committee chairman Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, a Wilton Republican, said the investigation will resume in June.

Jones, a member of the Administrative Rules committee, told DHS representatives that she appreciates the agency’s intent to improve foster care safety but thinks they need to focus on enforcing existing rules.

“It is absolutely ridiculous that we are going to regulate dog poop, but we have children in our state that are dying, that are being beaten to death,” she said.

Kaufmann said he supports DHS policy changes to help prevent future system abuse, but a month before his committee returns to the issue, he acknowledged it’s hard to believe such rules will ensure children are protected.

“That will certainly be a part of what I’m looking into,” he said. “It’s incumbent on them to explain if these changes are going to help that situation.”

Sen. Matt McCoy, who serves on the Senate Government Oversight Committee and has been critical of DHS, said he is cautious about the agency’s proposed rule changes but supports the concepts.

“They still haven’t addressed a lot of their issues related to Natalie Finn and Malayia Knapp and other child abuse situations,” he said. “I would say especially on the foster care side that’s something I want to look into.”

McCoy cited fewer DHS employees, high turnover in departments and fewer overall resources as reasons that led to the department’s decline in credibility. He said the agency is in a position where lawmakers will question everything they propose.

“The department is really stressed beyond its capacity,” he said. “But we should be doing more to protect the kids.”

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