State Senator Matt McCoy (D-Des Moines)
State Senator Matt McCoy (D-Des Moines)

State law requires that information about reports made to the Iowa Department of Human Services and the records of those who receive services and assistance by the Department are to be confidential. Iowa Code Chapter 217.30(4)c specifically states that this information can not be used for political purposes.

It reads:

It shall be unlawful for any person to solicit, disclose, receive, use, or to authorize or knowingly permit, participate in, or acquiesce in the use of any information obtained from any such report or record for commercial or political purposes.

How much information should state lawmakers who receive confidential briefings about child abuse and neglect cases share with the press?

State Senator Matt McCoy (D-Des Moines) requested a confidential meeting with Chuck Palmer, the Director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, in response to the death of Natalie Finn who resided in his district. Finn was a 16-year-old in West Des Moines adopted out of the foster care system by Nicole and Joseph Finn who later became the subject of numerous abuse reports to law enforcement and child protection services. She starved to death last October. Her adoptive parents have since been arrested on several felony counts connected to her death, as well as, the abuse of her younger siblings who also lived in their home.

Iowa Code Chapter 235(A).15(7) states members of the legislature, in particular the majority or minority leaders in the Iowa House or Senate or the Speaker of the House, can request a meeting with the Director of the Iowa Department of Human Services or his designee:

If the director of human services receives a written request for information regarding a specific case of child abuse involving a fatality or near fatality to a child from the majority or minority leader of the senate or the speaker or the minority leader of the house of representatives, the director or the director’s designee shall arrange for a confidential meeting with the requestor or the requestor’s designee. In the confidential meeting the director or the director’s designee shall share all pertinent information concerning the case, including but not limited to child abuse information. Any written document distributed by the director or the director’s designee at the confidential meeting shall not be removed from the meeting and a participant in the meeting shall be subject to the restriction on redissemination of confidential information applicable to a person under section 235A.17, subsection 3, for confidential information disclosed to the participant at the meeting. A participant in the meeting may issue a report to the governor or make general public statements concerning the department’s handling of the case of child abuse.

The law clearly states that only “general public statements concerning the department’s handling of the case of child abuse” can be made after legislators attend such meetings.

Here is what The Des Moines Register originally reported on December 28 about McCoy’s meeting with DHS:

State Sen. Matt McCoy, a Democrat who represents West Des Moines, where Natalie died Oct. 24 from emaciation, said the details of the children’s suffering made him want to vomit.

“This young woman was essentially put through one of the most torturous forms of death I could think of,” he said. “It’s absolutely tragic. We need to do all we can to make sure this never happens again.”

McCoy said details unveiled during the briefing underscored the need for changes in the way home-schooled children are monitored, additional vetting of potential parents before children are adopted out of foster care, and better direction of child-protective workers to ensure they are giving “more trust and validity” to abuse reports from mandatory reporters.

McCoy will be the ranking Democrat on the Legislature’s Oversight Committee when the Legislature convenes in January. He asked for the private briefing with Human Services chief Chuck Palmer last week with other lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, who he was told not to name.

He said he also was told not to say how many child abuse reports or assessments were made by Human Services, but he confirmed some of the reports involved school officials and neighbors who lived near Natalie and her siblings in West Des Moines….

….McCoy said the review involved a child-protection worker and supervisor, but he could not say what discipline occurred. He could not use the word “termination,” he said.

McCoy said the numerous abuse reports that came into Human Services, “should have been red flags to these child protection employees,” but he said there were several “miscues” that prevented more action….

….McCoy said he’s troubled by “very glaring conflicts of interest” for county attorneys in such cases, who benefit from keeping details confidential. The elected officials, he said, play roles in the investigation of a case, its prosecution, representing the state in the juvenile child-welfare case, and defending Human Services’ actions on behalf of the state.

“I think it’s a system fraught with problems and potential conflicts. Unfortunately, I don’t know what the solution would be,” he said. “It’s a tough position to be in. I see why they want to close down the information.”

Also on January 25, 2017,  The Des Moines Register reported:

The principal and school nurse at the West Des Moines alternative high school where 16-year-old Natalie Finn begged for food had reported months before she died of starvation that they suspected child abuse, a state senator said in an exclusive interview.

Sen. Matt McCoy told Reader’s Watchdog he’s also learned that West Des Moines police went several times last summer to the West Des Moines home of Natalie’s adopted mother, Nicole Marie Finn, after being told her adopted children were being abused.

But school officials and officers both had difficulty getting child-protective workers to take their concerns seriously — until late last summer, when a worker and police pushed their way into the Finn house Aug. 16, McCoy said.

McCoy’s comments to The Register may not have legally crossed the line over into what he is not allowed to say, but in my opinion he dances all over it. His comments seem to go beyond “general statements.” It should also be noted that in the December 28th article he states he has a problem with how the law is written dealing with privacy in these cases.

McCoy says he requested this meeting along with “other lawmakers,” but states he was not allowed to disclose who those other lawmakers are. He is the only lawmaker talking to the press. He wasn’t supposed to give details about the case, but he confirmed two employees at DHS were facing discipline. He also confirmed that school officials and neighbors were involved in making reports.

In the January 25th article he shares that the school nurse and principal at West Des Moines’ alternative school made reports to the police.

Iowa Department of Human Services spokesperson Amy McCoy was unable to answer Caffeinated Thoughts’ inquiry about whether or not Finn’s adoptive family had complaints prior to pulling her out of school.

“We have consulted with prosecutors and will not be releasing information regarding the Finn case because we do not want to jeopardize the criminal proceedings,” she said in an email.

I’m perplexed as to why home schooling is being targeted when it is evident the abuse also happened while she was enrolled in public school (even though the DHS spokesperson wouldn’t confirm that). It is also apparent that complaints were made after she was no longer enrolled.

There should be transparency and accountability in cases like this, but we don’t, however, have full information about what happened. McCoy has aided The Des Moines Register in their war against homeschooling and the rest of us are not privy to what he was told.

This type of behavior appears to be McCoy’s modus operandi. Recently he was rebuked by the Burlington Police Department after talking about a death of a teenager in that community on the Senate floor. It appears he made the “facts” fit with his agenda. The police department, in response, said there wasn’t one thing he said in his speech that was accurate.

How much can we really trust Senator McCoy to provide reliable information? Not much if you ask me.

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