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Legislators call for joint hearing on DHS following Perry teen's death


BRIANNE PFANNENSTIEL   | The Des Moines Register

Iowa legislators, alarmed by the latest death of an adopted Iowa teenager, are scheduling a joint hearing with child protective workers to investigate whether policy or personnel changes at the state's Department of Human Services could have prevented the deaths.

“There’s clearly and unquestionably in my mind some problem with how our kids are being placed," said Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, a Republican from Wilton and chairman of the House Oversight Committee. "And getting to the root of that has to happen with this investigation."

Sabrina Ray, who was adopted out of foster care and home-schooled, was found unresponsive at her home in Perry last week. At the time of her death, the 16-year-old weighed 56 pounds. 

The home had been visited by Iowa's Department of Human Services after an in-home day care run by her parents had received complaints of inadequate nutrition and corporal punishment. Workers who visited reported they found no evidence of abuse at the time.

Ray's parents, Marc and Misty Ray, were arrested Thursday, and they each face four counts of child endangerment with serious injuries, three counts of neglect or abandonment of a dependent person, and one count of child endangerment resulting in death. 

Ray's death has similarities to that of Natalie Finn, a West Des Moines 16-year-old who was adopted out of foster care, home-schooled and died from starvation last October. Malayia Knapp, a Des Moines teen who was adopted and home-schooled, also was abused at the hands of her mother, but she escaped after running away in 2015. 

Those cases already had raised questions among lawmakers about whether the state's child-welfare officials were doing enough to safeguard children and prevent abuse.

Kaufmann previously announced he would investigate DHS practices, but this latest case adds a new sense of urgency, he said Thursday. The House and Senate for the first time agreed to collaborate and conduct a joint investigation of DHS policies, and they have scheduled a public hearing for June 5. 

Kaufmann said the committees will speak with DHS officials about how they place children, what checks and balances are in place, how complaints are handled, and whether follow-up checks are being executed effectively.

The goal, Kaufmann said, is to convene a series of hearings and ultimately make recommendations that result in legislation that could be approved during the 2018 legislative session.

"I think it’s appropriate that we do take a look and see what’s going on, and that the case that we had last year was maybe not an isolated incident," said Senate Oversight Committee Chairman Sen. Michael Breitbach, R-Strawberry Point.

Sen. Matt McCoy, the top Democrat on the Senate committee, hosted a series of meetings during the last legislative session to discuss the deaths and potential underlying factors. He said Thursday DHS is "in crisis."

He pointed to declines in state human services workers and has questioned changes made by state lawmakers in 2013 that keep school districts from monitoring some home-schooled children. 

"In essence, it provides a perfect environment for a perpetrator to victimize children in the home with no oversight by anybody outside the home," he said. 

McCoy and a growing chorus of Democrats now are calling for DHS Director Chuck Palmer to resign.

“Republicans have refused to take action for months and now a second child has died of starvation in under a year," Rep. Abby Finkenauer, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said in a statement. "Both of these children were on DHS’s radar and still managed to slip through the cracks. DHS Director Chuck Palmer has shown an inability to care for the most vulnerable in our state and should resign immediately."

Kaufmann said that outcome is not off the table, but he's waiting to see what lawmakers uncover through the oversight process. 

"Certainly the overall goal is to examine one serious question: Is this a people problem or is this a process problem?" he said. "When we get that answer, obviously, legislatively we could change policy. If it’s people problem and there was somebody who didn’t do their job, certainly changes would be merited."

2017 May 18