Excellent piece by Rehka Besu at The Des Moines Register.
Basu: DHS makes child safety negotiable
4:10 AM, August 13, 2012
The Iowa Department of Human Services’ child protection division has been engaging in a questionable practice that could undermine its very reason for being. The agency is “settling” cases with perpetrators it had previously investigated and concluded had engaged in “founded” cases of child abuse, even when none of the evidence has changed.
The upshot is that children could end up being around child abusers whose prior abuse history is concealed.
I recently learned of a third case of this in as many months. A founded perpetrator of abuse was able to get his name expunged from the state child abuse registry without any exonerating information by using as leverage contempt of court charges against his son’s mother. When a perpetrator goes from “confirmed” to “unconfirmed,” he or she no longer appears on the registry. That means prospective employers or others who should know may not know the history.
The change in a “founded” case had a ripple effect. On July 20, Warren County District Judge Gary Kimes ordered 13-year-old Grant Risbeck Riley to leave his mother’s home in Des Moines, where he has lived since he was 1, and move to his father’s home two hours away, where he doesn’t feel safe. The judge apparently didn’t consider the now-unfounded abuse cases, only the mother’s multiple visitation violations.
Matthew Riley had four confirmed abuse findings against him, but he was able to get DHS and his former wife, Kellie Risbeck Phillips, to agree to “settle,” so they were expunged from the registry. Riley had brought contempt of court charges against Phillips for preventing his custodial visits, which she did after he was founded for abuse. Phillips said her own lawyer told her: “ ‘Take this deal or you’ll go to jail,’ ” with the further warning that if she didn’t, the charges against her could be changed from civil to criminal. So the abuse cases were “settled” and a Warren County judge dismissed the contempt charges against her.
Why should DHS actions even be linked to court rulings? DHS spokesman Roger Munns says, “Circumstances that cause a DHS child abuse assessment may also be involved in separate court proceedings. … Iowa law gives the juvenile or district court the authority to consider whether child abuse information should be expunged.”
But this way? “I called lawyer after lawyer,” said Phillips. “No one could figure out why DHS was involved in a court proceeding.” She said she even called the office of then-Gov. Tom Vilsack, where she was told it was impossible for founded child abuse cases to be “settled” like that.
Asked why DHS would settle, Munns said additional information could arise or family functioning could improve. “A settlement requires agreement of all parties,” he said in an email. “The safety of the child is always the paramount concern.”
But it doesn’t appear to have been in that case or a Dubuque one chronicled in this column on May 20 involving parents Emalee Goedert and Michael Konzen. The DHS in 2009 founded Konzen for the sexual abuse of his two young daughters. He appealed, and 18 months later, DHS settled with him, despite the mother’s objections, and even though a DHS official could point to no new information.
He said it was in response to a court custody ruling, in which a judge, without hearing any testimony about abuse, demanded the couple settle and later gave joint unrestricted physical care to the father. Her ruling was overturned by the Iowa Court of Appeals, but the father officially remains unfounded for child sex abuse. And since then, the DHS has refused to found subsequent abuse complaints against him.
Another woman who didn’t want her name used, told me she was pressured into letting DHS change its child abuse finding against her ex to “perpetrator unknown,” on the grounds that: “If we take it to trial, I would never win … and with ‘founded against an unknown perpetrator’ he would at least have a record if he acted again.”
These cases are being treated like negotiable squabbles between parents rather than situations in which children’s safety is paramount. The child welfare agency is not protecting children if it’s allowing parents to be pressured to settle abuse cases without cause, or doing the pressuring itself.
Steve Scott, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Iowa, said he knows a lot of DHS cases get bargained down, but he hadn’t heard of deals like Riley’s. “If that’s truly what happened, that’s appalling,” he said. “If they bargain it down, they’re really not bargaining. They’re just caving in.”
The DHS should amend its policies so that founded abuse cannot be purged without compelling new evidence. Lawmakers and the governor’s office should also make clear that child safety is never negotiable.