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Senator Mark Segebart (R-Vail) chaired a subcommittee on Monday for a bill he authored. He said he filed it for the Families United Action Network.
The bill directs the Department of Human Services to adopt rules to utilize an audio script for the child abuse hotline that includes immunity and confidentiality information for callers.
Toya Johnson, representing Families United Action Network, said the group supports the bill due to many unfounded calls wasting resources. Currently, when calls come through, they’re anonymous.
Iowa law, though, states that after a fourth time making a false allegation, the state is able to persecute the caller to pursue the resources that are wasted.
“However, with our telephone number being the way it is right now, confidential would be better,” Johnson said. “We get to know who is calling. If they are making false claims, we have someone to look for to get compensation as well as making sure families remain safe.”
The group thinks there should be a disclaimer after the initial call is made. The proposed language for the message would be:
“The primary mission at the Department of Human Services is to protect children, improve child and family well-being and support and preserve families. You are protected by law from any liability from making a report in good faith, but please be aware it is against the law to intentionally make a false report of child abuse or neglect. If you suspect that a child is being abused, neglected or is in danger of abuse, please stay on the line and your call will be answered by the next available social worker. All calls will be recorded and are kept confidential.”
“We think that anybody who makes a report generally doesn’t have a problem giving their name if confidentiality and all the same rules will still apply,” Johnson said. “Our teachers, our doctors, whenever they make a mandatory report they put their name on it.”
The discussion turned to Natalie Finn and Sabrina Ray, victims of abuse in Iowa.
“Prime examples of calls coming into that hotline that went ignored when those were children who were actually in need,” Johnson said. “We just think it would be better if the line was confidential. Ohio already does it.”
According to Families United Action Network, the language was adopted straight from Connecticut.
Johnson said the disclaimer will not stop anyone from making the call or from reporting anyone.
“But, it tells you if you’re calling to make a false allegation, you could be subject to prison time, fines or both,” she said.
She said Ohio’s Department of Human Services ranks 15th and has a very good budget.
“This one change stopped them from bleeding resources,” she said. “Then you see a cutdown on high-conflict, divorce custody battles being brought to DHS. Less call from former lovers making false allegations. It’s a great move for Iowa, especially considering the problems that that agency is having right now.”
Representatives from DHS said they would comply with whatever they’re directed to do. But they are concerned about people not filing reports out of fear the report isn’t correct.
Lori Lipscomb of DHS said there is only one prosecution going on in Iowa involving a false report right now.
“Sounds like it’s not something that we look into often or prosecute or hold people accountable for,” said Sen. Pam Jochum (D-Dubuque). “Am I hearing that right? There has to be something that you’re tracking so we kind of know how prevalent it is in the state and when we find out it is a false report, what we do about it.”
Jochum asked about fears of a chilling effect where people may decide not to report.
“Certainly that’s a concern,” Lipscomb said. “We wouldn’t want to discourage folks from reporting.”
She said a decent amount of callers typically say they’re not really sure if what they’re reporting should be reported at all. Lipscomb said those aren’t most calls but do account for a decent amount.
There were 14 child abuse reports made to DHS about Finn before she died. The investigation is ongoing for Ray’s death.
Nicholas Dreeszen, also with the Families United Action Network, said one of the participants in his group had 23 calls to DHS against him. All were unfounded.
“It was pretty obvious it was coming in from an ex-wife, but with an anonymous call-in line, there’s no proof who it came through,” Dreeszen said.
He added that, through a self-admission from DHS, over 80 percent of calls are unfounded.
Chaney Yeast of Blank Children’s Hospital said she’s registered undecided but does have serious concerns about creating a chilling effect that keeps people from reporting.
“It’s not uncommon for a neighbor concerned about the child next door — gang activity, domestic violence, violent activity — to worry about retribution if their name was somehow given out,” Yeast said. “If a parent has a legitimate concern about the safety of their children, even if they did make a false report in the past, that should not be held against them to make a future report.”
Jim Obradovich said there is concern with the 20-second long recording.
“The concern is that if someone wants to make a report, if you keep them on the line for 20 seconds before they do it, they may hang up,” Obradovich said. “There are some of those instances where, if someone is a little reticent to do it, 20 seconds may be just too darn long in a situation where they have to be on the line.”
The subcommittee was cut short due to an emergency announcement at the Capitol. Iowa State Patrol requested the building be cleared.
The Iowa Standard reached out to Sen. Segebart to find out the fate of the bill, and we will post an update when we know what the final decision was.