The deaths of two teen girls adopted by foster parents and the abuse of another prompted Iowa lawmakers to question Department of Human Services staff about oversight last week.
Natalie Finn, 16, of West Des Moines, died from cardiac arrest Oct. 25 after suffering from malnutrition. Police and medics found her wearing an adult diaper and lying on the floor of her bedroom “in her own waste.” Nicole Finn, 42, was charged with first-degree murder and other felonies. Her ex-husband, Joseph Finn, 46, faces three felony charges.
The 56-pound body of Sabrina Ray, 16, of Perry, was discovered May 12 in the basement of the home of her adoptive parents, Mindy and Marc Ray, who were vacationing at Disney World. She was allegedly “drop-kicked” down a staircase by her adoptive brother. The parents, brother, grandmother and a cousin face felony charges. Sabrina and two adopted sisters allegedly were denied food and water and abused.
After Malayia Knapp, 17, ran away from home in December 2015, Urbandale police found raised black-and-blue welts and open sores from beatings administered by an older brother at the behest of their mother. Mindy Knapp was later convicted of assault.
All three children faced food deprivation and beatings, were among multiple adopted foster children in families receiving state subsidies and were home schooled, ostensibly to avoid monitoring by educators.
These cases aren’t an indictment of the overwhelming majority of admirable foster and adoptive parents providing desperately needed safe environments for children, often under difficult circumstances, or dedicated home-school parents.
Rather, they raise concerns about DHS oversight with 800 fewer employees under former Gov. Terry Branstad and those scamming the system for subsidies.
Iowa was sixth in the nation in 2013 for highest share of children in foster care — 4,500 or six of every 1,000. The number has fluctuated from a high of 6,781 in 2005 to 3,974 in 2014.
According to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, state laws give judges considerable discretion to extricate children from dangerous environments, including where drugs are manufactured or found in a child’s body as well as neglect and abuse.
The federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 encouraged more foster parents to adopt children into permanent homes rather than moving them around with subsidies similar to those received by foster parents.
For a family adopting an older child with special needs, Iowa subsidies are between $5,800 and $12,333 annually. Household income isn’t considered. The state determines how many children a family can handle.
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The Rays adopted four children from foster care, the Finns four prior to their divorce, and the Knapps six.
As the Des Moines Register reported, state workers can stop subsidies if foster or adoptive parents aren’t supporting the children. Foster kids are subject to monthly home visits and routine checkups, but children adopted out of state care — especially those independently home-schooled — are not monitored again.
Warning signs existed in these three cases.
Neighbors reported Natalie begging for food. Police and child protective workers visited the house in August, found ample food and believed she chose not to eat. Following her death, Joe Finn told police the kids ate and used the restroom at his home unsupervised, contrary to Nicole’s rules, and went to the bathroom on the floor “out of spite and defiance.”
State inspectors visited the Rays’ day care annually. Two complaints were filed for inadequate nutrition and corporal punishment, but no evidence of abuse was found. Police did receive calls regarding medical and criminal mischief.
The Knapps — with three biological children and six adopted — were allowed to keep seven in their home by a judge following Mindy Knapp’s conviction.
Wendy Rickman, division administrator of adult children and family services, told legislators the DHS is not dysfunctional. “Kids who reside in foster care today in the state of Iowa, 99.7 percent of the time, are free from any kind of (abuse).”
Despite DHS assurances child abuse prevention services staffing is “status quo” and reductions were related to closing institutions, Andrea Vitzthum, a Polk County assistant county attorney working in the juvenile division, disagreed.
Vitzthum said DHS workers told her they regularly feel overburdened with insufficient resources. “When we question what is going wrong at DHS, I think we all have to look in the mirror. This agency has been asked to do more with less for many years.”
Indeed, 50,000 calls were made to the state’s Child Abuse Hotline last year — more than 7,200 from educators. At least 20 Iowa children were killed — with abuse suspected in 11 cases.
At the very least, the state should require regular inspections of homes and independent interviews with children when parents receive subsidies. Even if only a handful of unscrupulous people are involved, the ruse of adopting children for money must end in the wake of these fatal and abusive cases.