DES MOINES — Gov. Terry Branstad warned Monday that Democratic probing of state child welfare services could negatively impact a criminal prosecution, but lawmakers fired back saying the GOP governor is trying to deflect criticism and cover up his administration’s failings.
“I think it’s terrible to play politics with a tragic death of a teenage girl,” Branstad said in reference to Natalie Finn, 16, of West Des Moines, who died from emaciation last October because of the denial of critical care, according to a coroner’s report.
Prosecutors have brought criminal charges against Finn’s mother Nicole Finn, 42, and her ex-husband, Joseph Finn, 46.
“This now is in the hands of the Polk County Attorney’s Office and the last thing we ought to do is have the politicians screw this up and not cause justice to be done for this tragic incident,” Branstad told reporters in response to questions being raised about his administration’s handling of child-welfare cases and alleged abuse of disabled adults at a state-run center that resulted in six employee arrests.
Democrats on the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee have been conducting informal hearings looking into the state’s child welfare system in light of high-profile instances of abused children. But Monday, Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, said officials with the state Department of Human Services declined to appear to answer further questions.
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McCoy and Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said DHS workers are being “gagged” and feared for their jobs if they talked to state legislators who say they’ve seen evidence case managers are overworked and understaffed, logging heavy overtime hours to keep up with demand in an agency that saw more than 800 positions eliminated since 2011 when Branstad returned as governor.
Democrats said they are seeking information because they have seen instances of children being placed “in harm’s way” or “falling through the cracks” due to insufficient resources or poor case management.
“I think he knows that he’s cut the department beyond its capacity to deal with problems, and I think he doesn’t want to take responsibility for the fact that his department is failing,” McCoy said at a Statehouse meeting where DHS officials were supposed to appear to answer 18 questions submitted by legislators.
“Who’s playing politics here, governor? This is Terry Branstad bullying state employees. This is his department; this is his mess; this is his cover up. This lies at the governor’s feet,” McCoy added. “The fact is that he’s trying to cover up for the incompetence of his department and covering up for his own incompetence as it relates to his oversight of the Department of Human Services.”
McCoy said committee members have lost confidence in DHS Director Charles Palmer and called upon Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, who will succeed Branstad when he is confirmed as U.S. ambassador to China, to “take bold action” to restore the agency’s proper role in protecting Iowa’s vulnerable residents.
“Our system is full of holes and children are suffering from a lack of proper oversight from within the Department of Human Services,” he said. “We’re going to keep doing our jobs and we’re not going to back away from this and if he wants to accuse us of partisan politics, that’s fine.
“This is not a partisan issue. It should not be a partisan issue and we’re trying to do our job here and our job is oversight,” said McCoy, who dismissed Branstad’s contention about the criminal proceedings underway in Polk County, saying, “We’re in no way jeopardizing this case or any other case.”
DHS spokeswoman Amy McCoy said the questions the committee posed to the department “were extensive” and DHS officials were working to respond, but she noted “this requires coordination across several divisions during a busy time in session.”
Amy McCoy noted DHS officials have attended several meetings with Sen. Matt McCoy, including providing a confidential briefing and presentations at the senator's request along with written responses. She added the department cannot speak about specific cases both under Iowa's confidentiality laws and in consultation with prosecutors who are trying the Finn allegations.
“We do not want to jeopardize the criminal proceedings in any way,” she said. “Natalie Finn's death was tragic and we are all saddened by what this young woman suffered. DHS has taken a close look at its policies, practices and personnel and taken action accordingly. To assert that there is some type of cover-up is absolutely inaccurate, especially in light of the confidential briefings we have provided at the request of several legislators.”
Amy McCoy said DHS officials will fully cooperate if called by the oversight committee but added “we cannot share confidential, case specific information in a public venue.”
The DHS spokeswoman also said “I am aware of no coaching or counseling of DHS employees not to speak to their legislators. Employees are directed through their employee handbooks that they should be clear that they are not speaking on behalf of the department or be doing so on work time. This is a long-standing policy across many employers. What they share on their personal time with their legislator is not restricted.”