Last August, a teenaged girl in West Des Moines named Natalie Finn died of starvation. This was not a case of poverty—it was child abuse. The parents were later charged with multiple felonies; there was the predictable outrage, followed by an “investigation” (a/k/a, the search to find someone to blame). The usual suspects were rounded up—DHS, of course, but also the school, the Department of Education, the police… Ms. Finn was 16-years-old, which is the age at which kids can legally drop out of school, which initially seemed to get the school off the hook. But then it was reported that Ms. Finn and her siblings were home-schooled. This, of course, brought in the DOE, where it was discovered that if parents elect to home-school with no services, the DOE does not track them. At all. And while that might not be a problem for caring, conscientious parents, it is, unfortunately, a good place for abusive parents to hide.

It also turns out that a neighbor had called in to report her concerns, as had the school nurse (when Ms. Finn was still in school), and the school. The police had gone to the home as well, but were denied entry. According to the Des Moines Register, an order was requested to go into the home for a welfare check (the paper was a little fuzzy as to what, exactly, happened after that, but it sounds like the order was granted and the police went in. The only thing really reported about the visit itself was that it was “apparent” the children had been coached not to talk to investigators).

Senator McCoy believes that if multiple reports are made about the same child/family, that DHS should investigate, even if the reports do not, standing alone, meet DHS’ criteria for further investigation. While I don’t disagree with that, it appears that in this case, there was at least some follow-up, going to the point of obtaining a court order for a formal “visit.”

He also believes that adoptive families who adopt and receive adoptive subsidies should be subject to some oversight. I do not particularly agree with this stance; it strikes me as overly intrusive, and a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. It also ignores the fact that only non-relative adoptions receive subsidies, which means that a relative adoption would not be subject to oversight. Finally, from a legal standpoint, an adoptive parent has the same rights as a biological parent. This would presumably include not being “followed” by the government to see if you are abusing the child they agreed you were competent to safely adopt unless there were good reasons for that oversight. Receiving subsidies is probably not a good enough reason.

Although not in this article, Senator McCoy has also suggested better oversight of home-schooled kids. I also agree with this, though again, let’s be sure we’re not going overboard, punishing good parents. Let’s find a reasonable middle ground.

There are also differing views as to whether DHS workers are overworked, or that their caseloads are too heavy. While I do not have the “data” on this issue, my sense as a CASA is that yes, the DHS workers have too much on their plate. But it’s not just how much, but what. When I look at their reports (as a CASA coach, I see the DHS reports to the court), it strikes me that there is a lot of time going into preparing these reports, but they do not always provide a clear picture of what’s going on.

Let me take a side road for a minute.

In business, mistakes are not only tolerated, but often encouraged. The thought is that you learn and grow when you make mistakes. Innovation comes from trying new things; they either work, or you learn something important to take forward. But in child welfare, the stakes of making a mistake are too high. Mistakes can result in a child’s death.

Understandably, then, DHS workers feel the pressure to get it right every single time. And when they don’t, everyone piles on and accuses them of terrible things. Instead of actually learning from what happened, though, new policies are put into place, often at the insistence of the legislature; new paperwork, more “i’s” to dot and “t’s” to cross. Instead of helping, though, this actually pulls workers away from working with the families, and forces them to instead spend more time doing paperwork.

And then if something terrible happens, they can say, “I did everything I was supposed to do. I dotted the ‘i’s’ and crossed the ‘t’s.’ You can’t blame me. “ In short, all of these new policies do nothing little to actually make children safer; they serve primarily to add more layers of “CYA.”

As most of you know, I own a business called Case Navigator™, which is designed to work with parents in juvenile court. Some have asked whether my services could have prevented the Natalie Finn tragedy and others like it. And the answer is this: not directly. But indirectly? Yes.

It would not have helped directly, because Case Navigator™ helps parents whose children have been removed and who are involved with the court system. Natalie Finn would not have been known to Case Navigator™. The family’s involvement with the court was limited to the request for an order for a formal visit—not a removal or an adjudication.

So if Case Navigator™ would not have even been aware of Natalie Finn, how could it have helped indirectly?

By lightening the load of DHS, in order to reduce the likelihood of mistakes or missed problems.

The primary pushback I hear from people is that my service is duplicative. As an initial matter, I would note that this applies only to the teaching pieces, because the monthly task list and the tech piece are not things DHS has or does. But if DHS workers are even half as overworked as they claim to be, they are not likely spending much time on the teaching pieces. From what I’ve seen as a CASA, they are not doing this consistently or well. That’s not to say they don’t do other things well, nor is it to say that no one is doing it well; just that it would be better if someone else with the time to do a more thorough, comprehensive, and consistent job would take over this piece.

Even if you believe they are doing no teaching (raising the question, “how would Case Navigator™ taking over this part lighten their load if they’re not doing it anyway?”) they will spend less time explaining other things to the parent, because now the parent has a much better foundation of knowledge on which to base these higher level things.

In addition to the teaching pieces, Case Navigator™ provides a monthly task list. The monthly task list is a clear, concise way to keep everyone on the same page. It pulls tasks from multiple locations (that everyone on the team (whether parent, DHS, attorneys, or others) currently has to sort through) and places them in one place. It pulls out only what the client is to do (making it easier to “comply” with their case plan, orders, and FTM notes and work with their therapist, if one is ordered). And it specifically tracks those designated as critical tasks (therapy, substance abuse treatment, and visitation), sending an alert to the attorney if the parent has gotten off track with any one of these. This lightens the load for DHS because they now have a more concise, streamlined list to work off of. They’re not flipping through multiple reports/orders/notes, sorting through tasks assigned to others on the team, in order to talk to the parent about his/her responsibilities. And there are alerts that encourage follow-up by other team members as well, reducing the chance of things falling through the cracks.

The contacts page makes it easier for everyone on the team to find up-to-date information. Clients only have to update in one place, instead of calling/texting/ emailing multiple people on the team to provide the new information. This lightens the load for DHS because now they are not spending as much time tracking down this information, and they are also no longer receiving calls from other members of the team asking for this information. Everyone can access it from the site.

The push notifications to clients mean that DHS doesn’t have to send out reminder emails to the client; these are automated through Case Navigator™.

All of this means that DHS can spend time on the things that have the greatest impact—working with the families to more accurately determine when children need to be removed, and then working with them to safely reunify the kids in a timely manner (or not, if the children cannot be safely returned home).

And then maybe somebody can tackle the paperwork problem…

Natalie Finn
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