Anyone who’s seen “Schoolhouse Rock!” knows it’s not easy for a bill to become a law. It should come as no surprise that legislators and county officials took time out of their busy schedules to celebrate the passage of Drug Endangered Children legislation Tuesday.
The legislation, which passed this past legislative session, has brought changes to the way DHS officials investigate child abuse claims. Now, when DHS employees discover evidence of hard drug use, such as amphetamines, heroin or cocaine during family assessments, they can turn that information over to law enforcement. Previously, the only option available to DHS employees was to recommend the parents seek treatment. Until 2014, all hard drug abuse allegations were treated as child abuse assessments. The law changed when the state enacted differential response, which created two separate pathways for assessing child abuse.
Under the child abuse pathway, law enforcement, the courts and the Iowa Department of Human Services work together. The cases are treated more urgently, and the investigation is much stronger. Children can be removed from the home if necessary. Jasper County First Assistant County Attorney Scott Nicholson said by treating drug use as a child abuse investigation DHS has put more resources at their disposal. The timeframe for investigations is extended and law enforcement agencies have confidential access, allowing them to interview children without parental permission
“It’s just a better investigation, we’ve got more resources when law enforcement is involved,” Nicholson.
Since the passage of the law in February, Nicholson said his office has identified 33 cases within Jasper County that were handled as child abuse that would have previously been classified as a family assessment between Feb. 22 and July 1.
This isn’t the first time legislators have looked at this issue. A 2016 bill that failed to pass was not supported by DHS. The work group’s new report, which is trimmed back in comparison to last year’s proposal, is supported by DHS. Getting the law passed required rewriting the entire code section, and several members of the Iowa legislature worked together on the process. Rep. Greg Heartsill, R-Columbia, and Sen. Chaz Allen, D-Newton co-sponsored the bill. On Tuesday Allen said while the process to get the law changed was lengthy, the legislation was critical to protect children.
“It made sense to me,” Allen said. “We don’t want to have kids in houses with drugs, we want to get them out of there and get the parents some help.”
Nicholson stressed cooperation between agencies is a critical element in the fight to protect children in Jasper County. Before the DEC team of Jasper County formed in 2007, DHS and the drug task force did not cooperate effectively, Nicholson said. Former Jasper County Attorney Steve Johnson drafted an agreement that allowed the entities to share information. As a result, relationships improved.
In its 10th year of existence, the DEC board has more than 20 members from diverse backgrounds. Probation officers, DHS employees, a school resource officer, a chief of police, a victims services coordinator, nurses from a children’s hospital, a doctor and others make up the board.
A member of the DEC taskforce since 2010, Sgt. Chad Plowman with the Newton Police Department said keeping law enforcement in the loop helps keep kids safe. As police officers begin to see signs of second generation drug users in Jasper County Plowman said it’s more important than ever to create safe havens for local children.
“We’re more involved now, we’re able to focus on what’s best for the kids, and it’s an opportunity for us to put kids in a safe place,” Plowman said.
Contact David Dolmage at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or firstname.lastname@example.org