Child welfare records released by DHS

Roger Munns, spokesman for the Iowa Department of Human Services, released the following today in the child welfare case of Antwuan Williams Jr., who died in 2008:

The prosecutor has given us clearance to release our case files on the
Antwuan Williams tragedy. The attached is a Word version of the note
below.

Here are the four reports:

* In September 2006, there was a report of physical abuse to
Zairah, aged three months, who was immediately removed to the care of a
relative. The initial report was “not confirmed” pending further medical
tests. In December, the report was changed to “founded” with the parents
as perpetrators. The following June twins Antwuan and Au’Qusia were
born. Shortly thereafter the parents passed a lie detector test
administered by law enforcement regarding injuries to Zairah. As a
result, the assessment was changed to “founded, unknown perpetrator.”
Extensive services and counseling were ordered for the family, with the
intention to reunite Zairah if possible.

* In April of 2007, there was a report that the original abuse of
Zairah was committed by a relative. An assessment was conducted but
there was no credible evidence to support the allegation, and the report
was unfounded.

* In July of 2007, there was an allegation of neglect by the
parents because of marijuana use. The parents admitted to using the drug
at the time of the complaint but they proved that the children were not
at risk because the children were being cared for by relatives. The
report was unfounded. The parents agreed to take numerous drug tests
thereafter. All tests were clean.

* In February of 2008, not long after Zairah was reunified with
her family, there was a report of physical abuse on one of the twins,
Antwuan Jr. who died. Both parents were founded for abuse on all three
children. Both parents have entered Alford pleas (conceding that
prosecutors had enough evidence to convict) and are now in prison for
causing the death.

DHS workers and administrators, contracted social service agencies
serving this family, foster parents, court officials, health
professionals, and others have met often in the past two years regarding
this tragic case.

They have emerged from those meetings with deep frustration. They mourn
for the child. They also have compassion for the many professionals who
followed best practice in child welfare and who had every reason to
expect a positive outcome.

As they review these records they have asked the same question that many
want to know – could this have been prevented? In one of the early
court hearings, Judge Stephen Clarke said the death was the result of
parents deliberately deceiving the child welfare system. We don’t have
a better explanation.

The record shows there were doubts about the Williams’ ability to
parent, but it also shows that caseworkers and case managers performed
exemplary due diligence and “trust but verify” techniques throughout the
case.

In addition to the internal investigation, Governor Culver ordered the
department to engage an independent review of the child welfare system
as a whole. The review by the National Resource Center on Child
Protective Services concluded that Iowa’s system is exemplary in most
regards. The review recommended training to help workers sharpen their
knowledge about risk versus safety. That training has been completed.

Also as a result of this case, additional training was provided for
non-governmental social workers, and resources were approved for a child
protective center in Waterloo. That center is set to open next month and
will join five others across the state.

The Williams family was under constant watch and counseling from late
2006 through 2007 as they participated in services designed to reunite
them with their daughter.

Social workers for Mid Iowa Family Therapy, a contracted agency, made
dozens of announced and unannounced visits during this time. One worker
for Mid Iowa Family Therapy was in the home 38 times, and another
supervised 49 visits between Zairah and her parents. DHS case managers
visited frequently. It was commonly observed that the parents exhibited
appropriate care for the children, and that the children did not show
pain or fear.

The couple received mental health counseling and pastoral counseling.
Health professionals saw the children regularly for routine visits and
immunizations, but there were no alarms. Records show that Ziarah had
12 visits to health care providers: Antwuan Jr. had four visits for
checkups and immunizations. His twin sister Au’Qusia had five visits for
checkups and immunizations. A trial home visit for Zairah was deemed a
success in late 2007. The family, including the twins and Zairah, were
all in court on January 3, 2008, during which the court approved
reunification.

Weeks later, despite all that preparation and observation, tragedy
occurred.

The standard for the DHS to recommend removal, and for the court to
approve, is imminent danger of harm. The DHS recommends removal hundreds
of times a year, and the agency also recommends termination of parental
rights hundreds of times when reunification is too dangerous. Every year
in Iowa parental rights for about 1,000 children are severed, clearing
the way for adoption. The evidence in the Williams case did not rise to
the threshold of imminent danger.

Social work administrators know that when a case ends in tragedy, there
is a natural inclination by all the stakeholders in the child welfare
system to over-react and to intrude unnecessarily in future cases.
Such a reaction would be unfair to other fragile families.

Perhaps former Director Kevin Concannon put it best. In an op ed piece
talking about the Williams case, he explained Iowa’s child welfare
system has improved safety, has kept families together when possible,
and has engaged families while insisting on results.

He then said, “When I tell you that our system is working, that does not
mean it is without risk. Our job is to evaluate risk dispassionately.”

Every social worker, he said, knows that unpredictable factors can ruin
the outcome in any case, even those managed in the best methods.


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