A recent tragedy – and an Iowa legislator's response to it – has resulted in media reports that have included references to the homeschool laws in Iowa.
The distressing reports of the harrowing death of Natalie Finn are heart-rending reminders that each of us has a responsibility to look out for vulnerable children in our communities. Natalie was a 16-year-old Iowa teenager who was adopted out of the foster care system, but subsequently became the subject of numerous abuse reports to law enforcement and child protection services from public school officials and others concerned with Natalie's well-being. She died in October of 2016 due to cardiac arrest from emaciation due to denial of critical care. Natalie's adoptive parents are now facing multiple felony charges in connection with her death.
After surveying details of Natalie's case, one Iowa senator has filed legislation that would, if enacted, require Iowa homeschooling parents to submit to quarterly visits in which their children would be observed and interviewed by school officials.
While we recognize that the senator is attempting to find a way to protect children, he has missed the mark by focusing on homeschool regulations instead of proven methods to prevent child abuse fatalities.
There are documented ways to prevent child abuse fatalities, although these have been missing from the media reports and discussions surrounding Natalie Finn's case thus far.
In 2012, Congress authorized the creation of the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities (CECANF).
The commission was composed of top experts in the field and held meetings and hearings spanning several years in numerous localities around the nation. They heard from academics, experts, policymakers, and policy implementers while collecting an exhaustive amount of data on a comprehensive national scale. This was possibly the most ambitious effort ever undertaken to analyze the problem and craft workable strategies that could apply across our entire nation.
CECANF issued their final report in March 2016 (see link below).
The commission’s top recommendation to the nation’s policymakers was: “Identify children and families most at risk of a maltreatment fatality” (page 13).
The report listed numerous risk factors.
Homeschooling was never listed as a risk factor – nor was it even mentioned in the report.
Rather, the commission identified a number of key risk factors associated with child abuse or neglect fatalities (page 26), including these: – A prior report to social services is the “single strongest predictor" of a child’s potential risk for injury death…before age 5. – A child reported to CPS had about a two-and-a-half times greater risk of any injury death. – Children reported for neglect had a significantly higher risk of unintentional injury death. – Children with a prior CPS report of physical abuse had an almost six times greater risk of death from intentional injuries.
The CECANF report highlighted specific localities that successfully reduced child abuse and neglect fatalities after they approached the problem using well-recognized risk factors.
In one of those localities, Hillsborough County, Florida, the community was shocked into action after nine children died of maltreatment between 2009 and 2011. Knowing that a report to social services is the single most important risk factor, agencies in Hillsborough County carefully reviewed open cases and analyzed new cases based on documentable risk factors. Abuse-related deaths dropped to zero (pages 38–41).
This real-life example shows us that there are proven strategies for successfully reducing child abuse and neglect deaths.
If officials involved in the Finn case had followed the compelling example of Hillsborough County, they might have recognized the numerous abuse-neglect reports related to Natalie’s family as high-risk factors for a potential fatality, and might have brought additional resources into action. As a result, Natalie might be alive today.
Legislation to implement intensive monitoring of all homeschooled children completely misses the application of the targeted risk factors identified in the CECANF commission findings, focusing instead on an issue—homeschooling—that does not warrant even one mention in the report.
If enacted, the monitoring legislation would likely misallocate limited public resources and injure the peace and freedom of homeschooling families, while failing to effectively impact the occurrence of child abuse and neglect fatalities.
We urge Iowa lawmakers, and all who seek to eliminate tragic deaths like Natalie Finn's, to read the full CECANF report, give particular attention to the Hillsborough County case study, and guide the State of Iowa to adopt proven strategies for reducing child abuse and neglect fatalities.