‘This Hits Us…Deeply,’ DHS Official Chokes Up Amid Investigation Into Two Dead Teens, Lawmakers Spar

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DES MOINES, Iowa  —  For six hours, it got emotional, personal and political as Iowa lawmakers held their first joint oversight hearing into the state agency under fire following the deaths of two adopted and home schooled teens.

A longtime administrator with the embattled Iowa Department of Human Services broke down during his remarks before lawmakers investigating his agency Monday morning. “This…hits us. Our people care…deeply,” Vern Armstrong, DHS Division Administrator of Adult Children and Family Services, said as his voice cracked and eyes filled with tears.

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Armstrong testified before lawmakers about the toll those recent deaths have taken on DHS staff. Lawmakers have reduced funding in recent years and the DHS has cut staff by nearly 15 percent.

Watch this piece which lays out changes to the agency. 

Armstrong said 80 percent of recent reductions are due to institutional changes. Under former Governor Terry Branstad's administration, DHS has closed a center for troubled teens in Toledo, as well as mental health facilities in Mt. Pleasant and Clarinda.

Armstrong said 19 percent of staff reductions are due to budget cuts. He anticipates further staff cuts in the coming year but said the agency hopes attrition will cover those reductions, rather than layoffs. A DHS spokeswoman later told Channel 13 that the agency is planning to eliminate an additional 64 full-time positions in the coming budget year.

For the first time Monday, lawmakers--both Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate--began oversight hearings into the DHS. Previously, only Democrats held hearings on the agency that serves nearly a million Iowans in some fashion every year, according to the DHS.

The legislative investigation is actually one of three taking place right now. DHS is conducting its own investigation and announced Monday it had hired an outside group to looked at its practices and procedures.

Law enforcement is also conducting two different criminal investigations following the deaths of Natalie Finn, 16 of West Des Moines, and Sabrina Ray, 15 of Perry. In both cases, the teens' adoptive parents are charged in connection with their deaths. Both teens, who were home-schooled by their adoptive parents, were found extremely malnourished.

(Two Iowa teens died after being placed with adoptive families.)






The DHS Director Chuck Palmer already announced plans to retire. 

Tensions rose during a portion of the meeting after State Senator Matt McCoy, a Des Moines Democrat who led his own oversight hearings earlier in the year when Republicans refused to participate, asked a second, long series of questions to witnesses who testified.

Here is the list of those who spoke at the hearing. 

After McCoy claimed that he didn't think he was getting truthful answers to his questions from the DHS, the two Republicans who chaired the meeting--State Senator Michael Breitbach of Strawberry Point and State Representative Bobby Kaufmann of Wilton--scolded McCoy for refusing to abide by time constraints for the members of the committee.

Watch the exchange here:

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Lawmakers did seem to find some agreement during the meeting. Scott Woodruff, legal counsel for the Home School Legal Defense Association, suggested state investigators need to more actively get involved following a second allegation that a family has abused or otherwise done something inappropriate to a child. Legislators seemed to agree that could better protect children in the future.

Kaufmann said he hasn't determined yet when the committee will meet again and wants to give members time to review what they heard so far.

Watch how the future of DHS is a challenge for Iowa's new Governor Kim Reynolds.

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