DHS

Recently, the Des Moines Register published an article regarding two lawsuits filed against the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS).  The lawsuits allege that children in Iowa are being removed from their homes as a result of voluntary agreements signed by non-custodial parents.  Voluntary removal agreements are not part of any official court proceedings.  They are used outside of formal court supervision to remove children from reported harmful situations.

DHS explains that voluntary removal agreements are used as a first option in an attempt to place the child with relatives or foster care parents.  They believe that with the agreement being voluntary, DHS will be able to remove the child from any perceived harm more quickly than if they had to file a formal Child in Need of Assistance petition and have the child declared a ward of the state.

Concerns

More Children Being Placed in Foster Care

There are, however, concerns about the voluntary removal process.  There are more foster care placements because of the voluntary agreements.  An Iowa City attorney, Natalie Cronk, has filed the aforementioned two lawsuits claiming that as a result of the voluntary agreements, children are being placed in foster care without proof that they were unsafe in their original home.  Cronk states that the burden of proof has shifted to the parents to prove that their home is unsafe, rather than DHS having to prove there are unsafe conditions in the home.

Non-Custodial Parents Signing Voluntary Removal Agreements

Also, a major concern with voluntary removal agreements is that non-custodial parents are allowed to sign them.  In the two lawsuits filed, non-custodial parents signed voluntary removal agreements causing the child to be removed from their custodial parents.  DHS states that they cannot know who has custody when they respond to allegations of abuse.

Voluntary Removal Agreements and Parents’ Rights

Cronk believes that voluntary removal agreements violate parents’ rights, however, parents sign them because they are at risk of losing their child permanently.  Another concern is the lack of court supervision and lack of representation with the agreements.  Children do not have their own guardian ad litems, and it is DHS social workers who make decisions rather than judges.  Some in the child welfare system are concerned because there are voluntary removal agreements being used in cases involving serious risks to children, including meth, sexual abuse and domestic violence.

DHS attempts to take parents’ rights into consideration by involving them in family team meetings.  These meetings involve all of the parties and involved professionals of a case together to make decisions about the child’s welfare.

Violation of Parents’ Rights or Focusing DHS Services?

The question raised by these two lawsuits is whether the voluntary removal agreements are a threat to parents’ rights or a way for DHS to better focus their attention on very high risk cases and provide attention to all children who need it in Iowa.

There has been a similar situation in Illinois where a class action lawsuit against the use of voluntary safety plans (Illinois’ equivalent to Iowa’s voluntary removal agreements).  The Family Defense Center out of Chicago won that case against the State of Illinois, however the decision was overturned by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals which ruled that any safety plan is voluntary under the law.

 

 

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Recently, CNN reported on a disturbing story  involving a set of Egyptian parents in a United Arab Emirates airport who, rather than waiting for their son’s visa paperwork to process, decided to put him in one of their suitcases and continue with their travels.  Their 5 month old son was discovered by a baggage x-ray machine and had been in the parent’s carry-on luggage.  The boy was reportedly in good health when found, however, the airport police reported that this was the first incident of its kind.

Child Abuse in the Middle East

The United Arab Emirates is a country consisting of a federation of seven emirates with a single national president.  With just a quick Google search, one can find many child abuse stories originating in this part of the world.  Although it does sound like efforts to minimize and eliminate child abuse are increasing, the religious and political institutions that exist in the middle east may make it more difficult to control.  Many acts that would be considered criminal in the United States (and even in the middle eastern countries) are kept secret within families because of a concern to protect an individual’s or a family’s honor.

Child Abuse in Iowa

Here in Iowa, Code section 232.68  provides the definitions of what is considered child abuse.  The Department of Human Services (DHS) has the legal authority to conduct an assessment of child abuse when it is alleged that:

  • The victim is a child
  • There has been:
    • Physical Abuse
    • Mental Injury
    • Sexual Abuse
    • Child Prostitution
    • Presence of Illegal Drugs
    • Denial of Critical Care
    • Manufacturing or Possession of a Dangerous Substance
    • Bestiality in the Presence of a Child
  • The abuse is the result of the acts or omissions of the person responsible for the care of the child

If the incident that occurred in the United Arab Emirates had happened in Iowa, it certainly could have been reported to DHS for physical abuse of a child as well as the denial of critical care.

Reporting Child Abuse in Iowa

If you believe you have witnessed child abuse in Iowa, call the Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-362-2178.  It is available 24 hours a day and 7 days a week and you may remain anonymous if you choose.  However, if the child is in imminent danger, it is important that you call 911 immediately.

 

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The Iowa Supreme Court recently entered a ruling affirming the judgment of a Polk County Juvenile Court and vacating a Court of Appeals Ruling.  In the Interest of A.B. & S.B. is a case involving a termination of a father’s parental rights to two children pursuant to Iowa Code section 232.116(1)d), (g), (h), and (l) (2011).

Father’s History of Drug Abuse

The father of the two children, Silverio, has a chronic substance abuse problem.  He also has been the subject of six founded reports of child abuse and has a lengthy criminal conviction history involving assault and possession of controlled substances.  Silverio has also previously had his parental rights terminated as to another child.  Nelda is the mother of the children.  She and Silverio were never married and are no longer together, their relationship filled with drugs and domestic violence.

The children involved S.B., A.B. (as well as their younger half brother, D.G.) came to the attention of DHS in November of 2010.  There were concerns about their medical care, or more accurately the lack thereof, as well as housing instability, illegal drug use in the home and truancy issues.  DHS offered services to Nelda, who the children were living with.

Eventually, the children were removed from Nelda’s care and were living with Silverio, who then was arrested on drug charges.  On the day of his arrest, the juvenile court removed the children and placed them in foster care.  Nelda was subsequently arrested for identity theft.  The children were determined to be Children in Need of Assistance (CINA) pursuant to Iowa Code Sections 232.2(6)(c)(2) and (n) (2011).  After hair stat testing, unfortunately Nelda and all three children tested positive for methamphetamine.  Silverio shaved his head and was unable to provide a sample for the test.

DHS Provides Services to Facilitate Reunification

As in other Termination of Parental Rights cases, DHS provided services for the children and Nelda to facilitate reunification.  Silverio continued to exhibit destructive behavior, getting arrested for domestic abuse assault and testing positive for meth in a urine test.  However, after this arrest Silverio began to make progress by attending classes, family team meetings, and testing negative for illegal drugs.  He completed drug treatment and a mental health evaluation.  Unfortunately, Nelda did not show such progress and remained in jail.

Silverio obtained employment, resumed regular visitation with the children, attended therapy sessions, and communicated with the daycare center.  DHS remained concerned, however, stating that Silverio had problems with lying and a lack of insight into his domestic abuse, anger and drug issues.   The State recommended termination of Silverio’s parental rights.  After testifying and requesting more time to obtain custody, Silverio tested positive for methamphetamine.  The juvenile court terminated Silverio’s (and Nelda’s) parental rights.  Silverio’s parental rights were terminated pursuant to Iowa Code section 232.116(1)(d), (g), (h), and (l):

232.116  GROUNDS FOR TERMINATION.

    • 1.  Except as provided in subsection 3, the court may order the termination of both the parental rights with respect to a child and the relationship between the parent and the child on any of the following grounds:
      • d.  The court finds that both of the following have occurred:
        • (1)  The court has previously adjudicated the child to be a child in need of assistance after finding the child to have been physically or sexually abused or neglected as the result of the acts or omissions of one or both parents, or the court has previously adjudicated a child who is a member of the same family to be a child in need of assistance after such a finding.
        • (2)  Subsequent to the child in need of assistance adjudication, the parents were offered or received services to correct the circumstance which led to the adjudication, and the circumstance continues to exist despite the offer or receipt of services.
    • g.  The court finds that all of the following have occurred:
      • (1)  The child has been adjudicated a child in need of assistance pursuant to section 232.96.
      •  (2)  The court has terminated parental rights pursuant to section 232.117 with respect to another child who is a member of the same family or a court of competent jurisdiction in another state has entered an order involuntarily terminating parental rights with respect to another child who is a member of the same family.
      • (3)  There is clear and convincing evidence that the parent continues to lack the ability or willingness to respond to services which would correct the situation.
      • (4)  There is clear and convincing evidence that an additional period of rehabilitation would not correct the situation.
    •  h.  The court finds that all of the following have occurred:
      • (1)  The child is three years of age or younger.
      • (2)  The child has been adjudicated a child in need of assistance pursuant to section 232.96.
      • (3)  The child has been removed from the physical custody of the child’s parents for at least six months of the last twelve months, or for the last six consecutive months and any trial period at home has been less than thirty days.
      • (4)  There is clear and convincing evidence that the child cannot be returned to the custody of the child’s parents as provided in section 232.102 at the present time.
    • l.  The court finds that all of the following have occurred:
      • (1)  The child has been adjudicated a child in need of assistance pursuant to section 232.96 and custody has been transferred from the child’s parents for placement pursuant to section 232.102.
      • (2)  The parent has a severe, chronic substance abuse problem, and presents a danger to self or others as evidenced by prior acts.
      •  (3)  There is clear and convincing evidence that the parent’s prognosis indicates that the child will not be able to be returned to the custody of the parent within a reasonable period of time considering the child’s age and need for a permanent home.

 Appeal of Termination of Parental Rights

Silverio appealed this decision, arguing the juvenile court violated his due process rights when it ordered a drug test at the end of the termination trial and then relied on those results, that the State had failed to establish a statutory ground for termination by clear and convincing evidence, and that termination of Silverio’s parental rights was not in the children’s best interest.  The court of appeals reversed because, although they ruled that Silverio had not preserve error on his objection to the drug test, they were “bothered” by the results and the accuracy of the test.  They also felt that termination was not in the children’s best interests.

Iowa Supreme Court Analysis of Termination of Parental Rights Proceedings

The court reviews proceedings to terminate parental rights de novo, meaning they give weight to the juvenile court’s findings of fact, but are not bound by them.

The Iowa Supreme Court disagreed with the court of appeal’s finding  that the record lacked clear and convincing evidence to warrant termination of Silverio’s parental rights.  The Court listed several points that led to their conclusion:

  • Fingernail Drug Test
    • The general rule that appellate argument must first be raised in the trial court applies to CINA and termination of parental rights cases.  In re Interest of K.C., 660 N.W.2d 29, 38 (Iowa 2003).
    •  Silverio was not ordered to take the fingernail drug test, he stated that he was perfectly willing to take the test and then reported voluntarily to do so.
    •  The test report has no indication of unreliability on its face.  Iowa R. Evid. 5.901(a).
    • The evidence was admitted without objection.
  • Grounds for Termination
    • The Court can base affirmation of the juvenile court’s order on any one ground they find is supported by the record.  In re Interest of D.W., 791 N.W.2d 703, 707 (Iowa 2010).
    • The Court finds that termination is proper under Iowa Code Section 232.116(1)(d).
    • The juvenile court’s finding is based on clear and convincing evidence.
      •  The juvenile court found that Silverio denied his drug use in the face of credible evidence to the contrary.  His drug problem was not resolved and therefore was not in any state to provide a safe and stable home for the children.
  • Best Interests of the Children
    • After statutory grounds for termination are established, the Court must still determine whether termination is in the children’s best interests.  Iowa Code section 232.116(2).
      •  The Court gives “primary consideration” to the child’s safety, long term nurturing and growth of the child, and physical, mental and emotional needs of the child.  Iowa Code section 232.116(2).
      • The children were excelling in foster care and they repeatedly told their care providers they were happy living there.  Truancy problems were no longer an issue, the children were doing well in school  and the foster parents had indicated a desire to adopt them.
      • Although Silverio had taken advantage of DHS services, he was still involved in drug and domestic violence related arrests.  Also, he refused to acknowledge any illegal drug use despite several positive drug tests.

Because of these reasons, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals and affirmed the juvenile court ruling terminating Silverio’s parental rights.

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