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Local

Bipartisan effort strengthens laws to protect drug-endangered children

Nicholson
Nicholson

Iowa’s 2017 legislative session, which ended Saturday morning, might be remembered for partisan divides on major issues and a Republican majority that successfully pushed its agenda. However, legislators were able to see eye-to-eye on a significant law change that will impact the lives of drug-endangered children throughout the state.

During the last week of the session, Gov. Terry Branstad signed House File 543 into law after it passed both houses of the legislature unanimously. Under the new law, cases of cocaine, heroin and opiate use in the presence of a child will be assessed as child abuse.

Before HF 543, only methamphetamine use in front of a child under 6 years old was treated as child abuse. The new law not only adds cocaine, heroin and opiates — it adds stronger language to protect children around drugs.

In addition to manufacturing drugs around children, Iowa code now treats the use, possession and distribution of hard drugs as child abuse. And where previous law stopped at parents, guardians and custodians, the new law goes further to include any “adult member of the household in which a child resides.”

The Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS), which is directly impacted by the law change, took the initiative in February to start operating under the new provisions before they became law. DHS was previously treating hard drug use in front of children as “family assessment.” With a family assessment designation, law enforcement is not involved, and the process is much less stringent.

Since the department changed its operations by choice in February, several cases in Jasper County alone have been treated as child abuse instead of family assessment, said Assistant Jasper County Attorney Scott Nicholson.

“The Department of Human Services was huge in getting this passed,” Nicholson said. “Not only did they support the bill, but they changed their mode of operation two months before it was signed. They were extremely instrumental in getting it through both chambers of the legislature.”

Nicholson has been working to strengthen drug-endangered children laws for many years. Those efforts went into overdrive when family assessment was created as a pathway under differential response in 2014. Differential response and family assessment still exist under the new law, and they are perfect for situations like a child living in a dirty house, Nicholson said. In that situation, DHS can sit down with a family, and resolve the issue without law enforcement.

Using hard drugs in front of a child is not the same as providing dirty living conditions, and Nicholson, who is also chairman of the Jasper County Drug Endangered Children (DEC) Board of Directors, is happy to finally see the law changed. As far as investigating dangerous drugs around children goes, Iowa is now among the top states in the country, Nicholson said.

Bipartisan support came swiftly for the bill, but according to Nicholson, the noncontroversial nature of the legislation prevented it from staying at the forefront of the legislature’s agenda. As it was moving through committees in the House and Senate, the Jasper County prosecutor and other members of the Jasper County DEC team had to remind legislators to act on HF 543.

Nicholson credited Sen. Chaz Allen, D-Newton, Rep. Wes Breckenridge, D-Newton, and Rep. Greg Heartsill, R-Columbia for getting support within both chambers. They played an instrumental role, he said.

Allen said it was important to listen to and address everyone’s concerns as legislators worked through committees and summer meetings. In addressing those concerns, the lawmakers were able to cross party lines and come up with a bill that was unanimously supported, Allen said.

“As I looked into the issue, I realized this was a real problem regarding the safety of children with regards to getting addicted to drugs early in life,” Allen said. “I am hopeful this change will help get families off the cycle of drug use from generation to generation.”

Breckenridge said Iowa is one of the most progressive states when it comes to protecting children against dangerous drugs.

“Department of Human Services was instrumental in the process, and a 16-panel work group was created that collectively worked on the language proposed,” Breckenridge said. “Protecting our children is a bipartisan issue that all of us can rally behind.”

Contact Justin Jagler at 641-792-3121 ext 6532 or jjagler@newtondailynews.com

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