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Local leaders push to protect drug-endangered children

Hard drug use could be changed to child abuse under Iowa law

Assistant Jasper County Attorney Scott Nicholson and other local leaders are making a push
to change laws to protect drug-endangered children. Hard drug use could be considered child
abuse under new Iowa law.
Assistant Jasper County Attorney Scott Nicholson and other local leaders are making a push to change laws to protect drug-endangered children. Hard drug use could be considered child abuse under new Iowa law.

Imagine a parent shooting up heroin in front of their child. It is a frightening image. When a parent faces such an allegation in Iowa, it is not assessed as child abuse.

Under current Iowa law, if a parent stands accused of abusing cocaine or heroin in the presence of their child, the case will not be looked at as child abuse. Unless the child is under 6 years old, the same applies for a parent using methamphetamine.

Instead, these cases are classified as “family assessment,” and law enforcement is not involved. 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.

Under the family assessment pathway, a child protection worker calls the parent and informs them of the allegation, before setting up a meeting at a prearranged time and date. If the parent is using the alleged drugs, they will have ample time to clean up the house. The child protection worker can then recommend the parent seek treatment.

“Once they make the referral to voluntary services, they close the case, and the assessment is done,” Assistant Jasper County Attorney Scott Nicholson said. “There’s no follow up. There’s no drug testing. There’s no interviewing the child. There’s none of that.”

Nicholson, who is also chairman of the Jasper County Drug Endangered Children (DEC) Board of Directors, said that family assessment relies on the truthfulness of drug addicts.

“Family assessment is very different because it is a voluntary basis thing,” Nicholson said.

Family assessment is an excellent tool for some circumstances, Nicholson said. For example, if children are living in a dirty house, family assessment can be used to sit down with the parents and address the situation. The Jasper County DEC team felt methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin use is too serious of a problem to handle the same as a dirty house.

Sen. Chaz Allen, D-Newton, also saw the process as problematic, so he secured the formation of a DEC workgroup by attaching it to the health and human services budget. According to the workgroup report, the DEC workgroup was “directed to examine issues and develop policy recommendations related to the protection and safety of drug endangered children for purposes of a child in need of assistance and child abuse proceedings.”

The workgroup formed in the aftermath of a legislative proposal that was not adopted during the 2016 session. The workgroup’s report was submitted to the legislature in December. The report recommended defining a drug endangered child as “a child whose health, safety or welfare is endangered or threatened as a result of any dangerous substance activity in the presence of the child as defined in Iowa code.”

The DEC workgroup, which met twice during the 2016 legislative interim, proposed several changes to the language in Iowa code. Most significantly, the changes would put cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine use in the presence of a child of any age under the child abuse pathway, instead of the family assessment pathway.

Allen, who attended one of the workgroup meetings, said members of the House and Senate are currently trying to put the report’s language into a bill.

“We already have the bill being drafted,” Allen said. “I’m trying to find a Republican co-sponsor (in the Senate). Once that’s done, I believe it’s kind of noncontroversial because DHS has agreed to it. We just have to get the language in the right bill and get it voted on.”

Nicholson said Rep. Greg Heartsill, R-Columbia, is going to propose the bill in the House. Heartsill proposed last year’s bill, too.

Rep. Wes Breckenridge, D-Newton, is also supporting the effort. Breckenridge is on the DEC board of directors.

“Wes has been behind this from the beginning, even before he was elected,” Nicholson said.

The bill that failed to pass in 2016 was not supported by DHS. The workgroup’s new report, which is trimmed back in comparison to last year’s proposal, is supported by DHS. Nicholson said the department deserves a lot of credit for getting on board with the bill.

“I’m proud of the department for realizing this is the way to go, that these drugs are dangerous, and they should be treated as child abuse assessments,” Nicholson said.

DHS’s blessing is important because the law changes would impact the agency directly. Child abuse cases are tedious and demanding. Much more work goes into a child abuse case in comparison to a family assessment case.

“Under child abuse assessment, law enforcement is involved because DHS and law enforcement will usually go to the house together, unannounced, to see what’s really going on with the parents,” Nicholson said. “It’s much more effective.”

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.

The Jasper County DEC Board of Directors is in its 10th year of existence. It 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. All members are volunteers for the nonprofit organization. Nicholson said not many people know about the DEC team.

“We don’t advertise,” he said. “We just try to protect children.”

Nicholson said Jasper County is one of the more aggressive counties in the state when it comes to removing children, what you have to do to get your children back and what relatives have to do to get the children.

“We try to make sure that once we remove a kid from a drug-endangered situation, they never go back,” he said. “I think that’s made a big impact on kids in Jasper County.”

Once the bill is drafted, it will have to pass through the legislature before it can be signed into law. That process is not usually speedy, especially with a bill that will partly overhaul how an agency operates.

“I don’t want this to start in 2020. I want this to start in 2018, and even that’s too late,” Nicholson said. “But I understand it’s going to take a lot of work.”

Contact Justin Jagler at 641-792-3121 ext 6532 or

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