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Four years after teen's starvation death, report says DHS failed to heed earliest reports of abuse


LEE ROOD   | The Des Moines Register

More than a decade before several West Des Moines high school officials tried to report that Natalie Finn was malnourished and abused, a child care worker who looked after Finn and her siblings called Iowa's Department of Human Services with disturbing information.

The woman said Nicole Finn, who adopted Natalie and two of her birth siblings, Jaden and Mikayla, had left ligature marks on the neck of one of the children, then just 3 to 5 years old. The adoptive mother pulled the children from Happy Time Daycare after the report was made.

On Monday, Iowa's state ombudsman found DHS didn't retain any record of that report or two others that could have provided critical insight long before Natalie, 16, died of starvation in her adoptive mother's West Des Moines home in October 2016.

Issued four years after Natalie's death, the report also found that child-abuse reports that should have been accepted were instead rejected, and that important witnesses had not been identified or contacted.

The report said more staffing, training and resources at the state's top child-protective agency — and measures including retaining prior abuse reports longer — might have made a difference in one of the most high-profile child deaths in Iowa history.

"Identifying historical patterns of identical allegations can be significant in determining the validity of allegations," ombudsman Kristie Hirschman said. 

A spokesperson for Gov. Kim Reynolds did not return a phone call Monday seeking comment. But DHS spokesman Matt Highland said Reynolds is requesting $4.1 million more in state and federal funding for 47 new DHS positions, most of them experienced social workers, in her budget request for the 2021 state fiscal year.

Hirschman said her agency's investigators interviewed DHS workers and school officials to identify how the girl's death could have been prevented.  

"The DHS employees we interacted with seemed dedicated, but they need additional resources," she said.

In response, DHS officials accepted 11 of the independent agency's 14 recommendations, including conducting a systemic review of how the agency fields child abuse calls; additional training and written guidance on legal tools available for workers faced with resistance from parents; and increased resources for staff affected by job-related trauma, fatigue from having to make hundreds of decisions in such cases and other work stress.

But DHS Director Kelly Garcia said the Legislature would have to weigh in on another key recommendation: that the agency retain abuse records like those expunged or discarded before Natalie entered high school.

 A balance must be struck between holding onto abuse reports too long and not long enough, Garcia said.

“This was a tragic case,” she said. “The Finn children should never have had to endure the treatment they received."

Natalie weighed just 81 pounds when she suffered cardiac arrest in a home where, court testimony from her mother's murder case showed, adopted pets were treated better than she and other adopted children.

After a divorce, Nicole Finn was the primary caregiver of Natalie, Jaden and Mikayla, as well as a teen in high school who was adopted from another family. Nicole Finn removed Natalie and her birth siblings from their schools after several abuse allegations were made to DHS, but she kept the other boy in school.

The suffering of the Finn teens — and that of Sabrina Ray, another 16-year-old who died after similar abuse and neglect the following May in Perry — led to an outcry for more state oversight of children adopted from foster care, more monitoring of children who are said to be homeschooled, and more involvement of other family members in ongoing abuse cases if children need to be removed from homes.

Iowans' concern over the cases helped trigger the biggest spike in new abuse reports in a generation.

Both political parties held oversight hearings at the Republican-led Legislature and a number of measures were proposed, but ultimately none was adopted.

The ombudsman found DHS' record-retention policies hindered its ability to identify patterns of abuse, saying timelines for keeping older records should be extended if new reports come in. Dramatic cuts in the agency's workforce also obstructed the remaining workers' ability to do their jobs, Hirschman found.

The release of the report prompted renewed demands for greater investment in child abuse prevention after years of state budget cuts, greater oversight of homeschooled children and resources for those who are supposed to review child deaths.

"Deep budget cuts in DHS adult and dependent abuse investigators that occurred under the Branstad/Reynolds administration created a perfect storm where a child literally starved to death despite efforts to report abuse," said former state Sen. Matt McCoy, a Democrat who represented West Des Moines when Natalie died.

Hirschman, whose office is currently investigating two other child deaths, says state leaders also need to give staffing and other resources to the state's Child Fatality Review Committee if they expect the state to learn from such tragedies.

That committee was formed after another heinous child abuse case, the 2000 death of 2-year-old Shelby Duis, but the Legislature never appropriated any funding, she said.

Monday's report said child abuse reports in Natalie's case did not contain some key allegations made by people who reported the abuse or "inadequately described those allegations."

Garcia said that since the deaths of Natalie Finn and Sabrina Ray, the state has made several changes in how reports are taken. For example, past reports are added automatically now when a new report is initiated, and supervisors spend more time reviewing rejected reports to see what might have been missed.

“Some of the work to improve the department’s response began immediately, but a large part of the department’s ongoing efforts will focus on finding better ways to support our team so they can better support the families we serve," Garcia said.

Neighbor triggers probe

Questions from Nicole Finn's neighbor, Becca Gordon, to Watchdog in 2016 led to the first stories examining the teen’s death, and showed numerous people had tried to report that Natalie and her siblings were being abused.

The ombudsman's office opened its investigation the same day as the first Watchdog report was published.

DHS endured deep cuts both before and after Natalie and Sabrina's cases were reported.

Through layoffs, early retirements, outsourcing and voluntary departures, it had lost 1,058 workers by 2018 from what had been a workforce of 4,998 in 2011. That included the elimination of at least 558 field operations workers, a category that includes social workers.

DHS did receive more than $11 million in additional funding for staffing in the current fiscal year, but Hirschman said she believes that is still insufficient.

“Although DHS received funding for the current fiscal year to hire additional field staff, I believe employees remain overworked,” she said in the report. “I am seriously concerned that the recent budget increase is insufficient, especially in light of the increasing numbers of abuse reports and investigations since Natalie’s death.”

mmediately after Natalie's death became public, Iowa’s DHS chief at the time, Charles Palmer, fired a field worker involved in the case and her supervisor, then retired the following summer. Four other employees who handled the abuse reports were given coaching and counseling, according to the ombudsman's report.

Today, Iowa still has some of the least oversight of homeschooled children in the nation, and other homeschooled children have died from abuse similar to Natalie and Sabrina's.

Hirschman said the ombudsman's review took years because it involved examining more than 3,000 pages of court transcripts as well as determining what happened with records retention and how West Des Moines police and schools responded.

The report found no substantive problems with the actions of school workers or police.

The ombudsman's investigators determined reports of abuse from experienced people who are required to report signs of child abuse, including Natalie's teachers, were not given proper weight, and that two of their written follow-up reports were not reviewed.

Of five reports made by school officials from November 2015 to May 2016, the first four were rejected by those who take calls at DHS central intake.

Three of those abuse reports should have been accepted for investigation. Included were two abuse reports, made six months apart, by school officials who described Natalie as “starving” and “very thin.”

After Natalie's death, Palmer largely blamed the child protective field worker assigned to the case and her supervisor for not giving “appropriate weight” to concerns voiced by officials at Natalie's school.

But later, a consultant hired by DHS to review the case interviewed workers, family members and others, and found wider problems at the agency, including high turnover and low morale; a poor response to those who are required by law to report abuse; excessive caseloads; little training for new staffers; and issues with the way child abuse intake calls were being screened.

The consultant's December 2017 report also faulted state leaders and lack of services.

"Child welfare intervention should not be viewed as a substitute for universally available basic health, mental health and supportive community services that can help families, especially those in poverty, to voluntarily access resources needed by themselves and their children that may keep their needs from escalating to the point that they result in a report of abuse or neglect,” the report said.

House of horrors

During Nicole Finn’s trial for murder and kidnapping, Polk County prosecutor Bret Lucas painted a picture of a hellish atmosphere in the divorced mother's home that grew increasingly life-threatening over the course of 2016.

Testimony and texts showed that Nicole Finn was defiant, suspicious and deeply resentful of Natalie, Jaden and Mikayla and that she went to great lengths to hide her abusive parenting of the teens from police and child protective workers.

In the summer of 2016, after the teens sneaked out of the house to panhandle for food, Nicole Finn forbade them from leaving their shared bedroom without permission and began to slowly starve them, testimony showed.

When social worker Amy Sacco and West Des Moines police obtained a court order and finally entered the home in August 2016, Nicole Finn was prepared and instructed the teens to shower and clean up. But the abuse grew more severe after the investigators left.

That fall, Nicole Finn removed the three siblings from their schools. The schools and neighbors called DHS to report them missing, but Nicole Finn said they were being homeschooled.

The siblings who survived testified that Nicole Finn locked them in a room, would not let them use the bathroom and fed them less and less. 

Three or four days before Natalie died, she became too weak to get up to eat, her brother testified.

“What did your mother do?” prosecutor Nan Horvat asked Jaden Finn, 16.

"She said, ‘Since you’re not going to get up, I’m not going to feed you,'" Jaden responded.

Nicole Finn's last attempt at feeding Natalie was a peanut butter smoothie from a used ketchup bottle.

The girl vomited, choked and finally died on the bedroom floor, wearing an adult diaper. She weighed just 81 pounds and her emaciated body was covered in bedsores. The family waited 15 minutes before calling 911 to report her death.

Appeals pending

Nicole Finn's defense lawyers portrayed her as a divorced woman who became increasingly overwhelmed by the four children with behavioral disorders she had adopted. But a jury took less than a day to convict her.

She has appealed her December 2018 convictions for first-degree murder and kidnapping in Natalie's death and two counts of kidnapping for confining her siblings.

Joseph Finn II, Nicole Finn's ex-husband, also appealed his March 2018 conviction, contending a Polk County judge acted improperly when comparing his crimes against his children to the crimes of those who stood by during genocides. 

But the Iowa Court of appeals disagreed this month, ruling that the sentence imposed on Joseph Finn, 49, was fair and the comparison appropriate. 

He was sentenced to 30 years in prison by District Court Judge Robert Hanson after pleading guilty to three counts of assault while participating in a felony causing serious injury.

Lee Rood's Reader's Watchdog column helps Iowans get answers and accountability from public officials, the justice system, businesses and nonprofits. Reach her at lrood@dmreg.com or 515-284-8549. Follow her on Twitter at @leerood and on Facebook at Facebook.comeaderswatchdog.

2020 Feb 17