Sunday, January 7, 2024

In Iowa, one more family finds out what it’s like to be on the wrong end of family policing


In Iowa the family police agency has grown since it used this logo.
Now it's the Department of Health and Human Services

“It really does change your whole perspective when a government body can accuse you of something you haven’t done, and they can remove your children.” -- Emily Donlin                                                               

Impoverished parents, especially impoverished Black and Native American parents already have that perspective.  For them, intervention by the family police is, literally, the norm.  

But Emily and Michael Donlin of Monroe County, Iowa, have discovered that it can happen to white middle-class parents like themselves, too.  Because here’s the deal with the family police: Anything that makes you different from some kind of stereotypical 1950s “norm” for a parent makes you a suspect.  

For the Donlins, their nightmare at the hands of the family police, known in Iowa as the Department of Health and Human Services, consisted of eight months of hypersurveillance and an attempt to take away their young children.  It may well have begun because their second child was born just a little too soon – and definitely in the wrong state. 

As the Des Moines Register explains, the baby was born healthy, but so quickly there wasn’t time to get to a hospital first.  In addition, Emily takes a “holistic approach” to her family’s health that includes “declining certain medical interventions during her pregnancies and declining to vaccinate her sons.” Emily says that same same holistic approach prompts her to avoid any drugs of any kind. She says she doesn’t even take ibuprofen for headaches. 

It all happened in Iowa, among the states most fanatical about tearing apart families.  Their rate of child removal is the 12th highest in America – more than 80% above the national average.  Of course, it’s even worse if you’re Black or Native American.  In Iowa, those children are taken at rates more than double their rates in the state child population. 

All this explains why those other decisions concerning medical care, and the unintended home birth may well have triggered a “risk assessment,” based on secret criteria, which led the hospital to test the blood in the baby’s umbilical cord for drugs.  State guidelines say hospitals are not supposed to test mothers without their consent, but they can go right ahead and do it to the babies, making the guidelines effectively meaningless. 

The test came back positive for cocaine.  The test could have been a false positive. It could have been switched with another sample by mistake.  But based on that one test and nothing else the hospital reported the parents as child abusers.  And based on that test one and nothing else – no investigation, not so much as a word to the family or anyone they knew -- Iowa family police declared the allegation “founded.” 

The Donlins asked the hospital to retest the sample.  The hospital refused.  Once the case was “founded” Emily was ordered to take one additional drug test after another; seven in all.  All came back negative.  None of it mattered. 

After six months of this surveillance and orders to jump through hoop after hoop, the Donlins had had enough. They dared to stop cooperating with Iowa’s family police.  The family police retaliated – against the children; the infant and his two-year-old brother.  They hauled the family into court and threatened to throw the children into foster care. 

Remember, for six months after the allegation was “founded,” the family was living safely together. 
The only thing that had changed was their decision to stop saying "How high?" when the family police said “Jump.” (Even this is better than what likely would have happened to a Black or Native American family.  Given Iowa’s track record, odds are a child in such a family under identical circumstances  wouldn’t have been allowed to go home with his parents right from the start.)

The children caught a break: The case was so weak even the “guardian ad litem” assigned to advocate for children’s “best interests” thought the family police should just leave the Donlins alone.  A judge agreed. 

But they’re still “guilty” 

But in the eyes of the family police, they’re still guilty.  So Emily Donlin remains on Iowa’s central registry of supposed child abusers.  As in almost every state, Iowa caseworkers can do that entirely on their own, there’s no hearing beforehand.  The family police put you there and, if you’re lucky, you may be able to fight your way out again someday.  That’s difficult under any circumstances, even more so if you can’t afford a lawyer. 

Family police apologists offered all the usual excuses – including the Orwellian claim that random nonconsensual drug testing is just a way to help families like the Donlins.  The medical director of another Des Moines hospital explained how this kind of testing 

“gives a great layer of support to the mother, and it also gives a great layer of support to the baby when they’re born.” 

Because nothing makes a child more supported than bringing the enormous stress of a family police investigation down on his parents, right?  For some reason, the Donlins see it differently: 

As Michael Donlin told the Register: 

“The sad part is that these doctors don’t realize that even if the kids aren’t taken away, even if the parents are innocent, how it can mess up an entire family.  They have no understanding of what it does when somebody comes to your door unannounced with the threat of taking away your kids.”

Said Emily: 

“It changes your whole worldview because you believe you can trust these parties. We trusted that they were going to do what’s right, and that they would see what’s actually going on and that we’re not doing drugs.  But we quickly realized that we actually can’t trust them.” 

And, of course, the family police apologists invoked the Big Lie of American child welfare – the false claim that inflicting this kind of trauma on families is part of a “balancing act between supporting families who might be struggling while ensuring the safety of children.” 

But the Donlins weren’t “struggling” until the family police intervened.  And when families really are struggling, they need a family police investigation about as much as a young Black man needs to be repeatedly stopped and frisked on the street. 

How the family police hurt everyone 

Now, consider how the family policing mindset hurt everyone in this case. 

● The family was put under enormous needless stress – that can’t be good for the children. 

● Even had the drug test been valid, as family advocate Joyce McMillan says: “a drug test is not a parenting test.”  In fact, a major study found that even when children really are born with cocaine in their systems, such children still do better in their own homes than when placed in foster care. 

● How might a family like this handle medical care during a future pregnancy?  Will they be comfortable knowing that everyone they turn to for prenatal care is a “mandatory reporter” of suspected child abuse – and if one of those mandatory reporters turns them in, the family police will already see that a parent is on the state’s central registry?  If the birth happens to take place at home, will they be willing to go to a hospital at all?  

We know the answers: Mandatory reporting laws and nonconsensual drug testing drive families away from medical care.  That is the real danger to children. 

As for ensuring the safety of children: In addition to the enormous emotional trauma, foster care is simply not safe.  One independent study after another finds abuse in one-quarter to one-third of family foster homes, and the rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse.  In Iowa, the dismal state of the system and its rush to needlessly investigate families were documented by the state’s own consultants. 

● Even that is not the end of it: All the time money and effort wasted surveilling this family and others like it, making them jump through hoops and hauling them into court was, in effect, stolen from finding some other child we may never know who is in real danger.  So Iowa’s approach in this case, and so many others, makes all children less safe. 

In this case, if not for an unusually wise recommendation from one guardian ad litem, two very young children would have been taken from a safe home only to be put at serious risk of abuse in Iowa’s dismal system of foster care.