exposing the dark side of adoption
Register Log in

'Numerous' abuse reports made in starved child case, lawmaker says


LEE ROOD   | Des Moines Register

Natalie Finn and her siblings were the subjects of “numerous” reports of alleged child abuse and neglect before the 16-year-old died in October of starvation, a state lawmaker said after a confidential briefing Thursday with top officials in Iowa's Department of Human Services.

State Sen. Matt McCoy, a Democrat who represents West Des Moines, where Natalie died Oct. 24 from emaciation, said the details of the children's suffering made him want to vomit.

“This young woman was essentially put through one of the most torturous forms of death I could think of,” he said. “It’s absolutely tragic. We need to do all we can to make sure this never happens again.”

McCoy said details unveiled during the briefing underscored the need for changes in the way home-schooled children are monitored, additional vetting of potential parents before children are adopted out of foster care, and better direction of child-protective workers to ensure they are giving "more trust and validity" to abuse reports from mandatory reporters.

McCoy will be the ranking Democrat on the Legislature’s Oversight Committee when the Legislature convenes in January. He asked for the private briefing with Human Services chief Chuck Palmer last week with other lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, who he was told not to name.

He said he also was told not to say how many child abuse reports or assessments were made by Human Services, but he confirmed some of the reports involved school officials and neighbors who lived near Natalie and her siblings in West Des Moines.

Last week, Gov. Terry Branstad said in a statement that the Iowa Department of Human Services made "personnel changes" in the wake of its investigation into Natalie's death. Asked how many employees might have been fired, a governor's spokesperson responded that "appropriate action" was taken with more than one employee, but did not elaborate.

McCoy said the review involved a child-protection worker and supervisor, but he could not say what discipline occurred. He could not use the word “termination,” he said.

when describing the personnel changes Human Services made. reviewed what happened in the starvation death of Natalie Finn. McCoy He said 

McCoy said the numerous abuse reports that came into Human Services, “should have been red flags to these child protection employees,” but he said there were several “miscues” that prevented more action.

Palmer was joined at the briefing by Vern Armstrong, a veteran division administrator who oversees Human Services’ field operations. McCoy said he was satisfied with the honesty and transparency in the meeting, but he still intends to move forward with a request for the state medical examiner to convene an ad hoc committee to review the case.

Finn’s shocking starvation, and the torture she and her siblings allegedly suffered in a middle-class, West Des Moines neighborhood, have rippled through Iowa in a way few child deaths have over the past 15 years.

News that there were numerous reports of neglect and abuse of the children underscore similarities with the state’s most high-profile death in recent history — the death of 2-year-old Shelby Duis in 2000. In that case, child care workers called Human Services repeatedly, reporting abuse and neglect two months before the Spirit Lake toddler died.

Finn’s parents, who were divorced, were charged this month with multiple felonies tied to Natalie’s emaciation and the alleged abuse of two of her siblings.

Nicole Finn, 42, faces first-degree murder, three counts of first-degree kidnapping, one count of child endangerment resulting in death, three counts of child endangerment causing serious injury and three counts of neglect of a dependent person.

Joseph Finn II, 45, of Urbandale, faces charges of first-degree kidnapping, three counts of child endangerment causing serious injury and three counts of neglect of a dependent person.

In past high-profile cases in Iowa, national child-welfare experts have warned that the public and policymakers cannot assess whether a child death from abuse is an anomaly or part of a more systemic failure without transparency.

But county attorneys across Iowa have consistently blocked the release of detailed abuse reports during criminal trials and investigations, even Human Services records are made available to the defense lawyers of alleged abusers.

But county attorneys across Iowa have consistently blocked the release of detailed child abuse reports to the public during criminal trials and investigations, even though those records are made available to the defense lawyers of alleged abusers.

Human Services spokeswoman Amy McCoy has said the department will answer more questions about Natalie's case “in a transparent manner and in the interest of child welfare when it's not at risk of impacting the criminal case.”

State law allows lawmakers and the governor to be briefed on cases and to make general statements as to whether they believe the case was handled properly.

McCoy said he’s troubled by “very glaring conflicts of interest” for county attorneys in such cases, who benefit from keeping details confidential. The elected officials, he said, play roles in the investigation of a case, its prosecution, representing the state in the juvenile child-welfare case, and defending Human Services’ actions on behalf of the state.

“I think it’s a system fraught with problems and potential conflicts. Unfortunately, I don’t know what the solution would be,” he said. “It’s a tough position to be in. I see why they want to close down the information.”

State Medical Examiner Dennis Klein is evaluating McCoy’s request to form an ad hoc committee to review the case and is seeking guidance from the Iowa Attorney General's Office, according to Polly Carver-Kimm, the Iowa Department of Public Health spokeswoman.

By law, the ad hoc committee would consist of a medical examiner, a pediatrician and a law enforcement official, and would have access to other expertise. It would have broad authority under the law to recommend changes to prevent similar deaths.

Andy Teas, legal counsel for the state ombudsman’s office, said his office — which has subpoenaed records in the case — is waiting to see if Klein moves forward with that review. The ombudsman’s office also has independent authority to investigate complaints, and it made numerous recommendations to state leaders after Duis’ death.

“The committee has never been convened for a child fatality,” he said. “This could be the first go-round.”

Authorities waited months to file charges against Natalie's parents. On Nov. 1, Watchdog requested police reports concerning police visits made to the West Des Moines home at the request of neighbor Becca Gordon, who had reported abuse to police.

Those reports are commonly available across Iowa, but West Des Moines police refused to release them until five weeks later, on Dec. 7.

One report showed that Natalie had tried to run away from home in mid-April. Another showed Gordon, whose son attended Walnut Creek alternative campus with Natalie, called police to say she had been asking for food and money, appeared "unkempt," smelled heavily of body odor, and had blisters on her feet and no shoes.

Gordon also reported to police that Natalie said "she was locked in her bedroom by her mother because one of the pets urinated on the floor," the report showed.

After Duis’ death 17 years ago, Human Services initiated a policy of removing children at least temporarily when the department had doubts about a child’s immediate safety. Then-Gov. Tom Vilsack initiated sweeping changes in the child welfare system.

But over years, the agency gained a reputation among some state leaders as being too aggressive in removing children from homes, and it eventually tried a more family-friendly approach to child welfare.

In 2014, Human Services began funneling thousands more reported cases of neglect that were perceived to be at lower risk to private providers for services such as parenting classes or counseling.

That freed their most experienced social workers to investigate reports of physical and sexual abuse, as well as the most serious cases of neglect. 

Formal findings of child abuse plummeted almost 40 percent the year after the change, according to Prevent Child Abuse Iowa.

But lawyers for abused kids voiced concerns that more at-risk children needed formal court oversight — and more oversight by social workers, juvenile judges and court-appointed lawyers acting on their behalf.

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

2016 Dec 28