Top Democrat of Senate Government Oversight Committee criticizes DHS director

State Sen. Matt McCoy, D - Des Moines, speaks with other lawmakers during a legislative meeting. (Photo: Steffi Lee)

The top Democrat on the Iowa Senate Government Oversight Committee is criticizing Director of the Iowa Department of Human Services Charles Palmer, saying he isn't providing answers to the list of questions lawmakers have regarding the child welfare system.

State Sen. Matt McCoy, D - Des Moines, has held several weekly informal meetings to address the state agency's handling of alleged child abuse cases. This comes after the October death of West Des Moines teen Natalie Finn and the story of Malayia Knapp, a central Iowa teen who has spoken out about the alleged child abuse that took place in her adoptive home.

"It is my position that we move forward with or without Director Palmer," McCoy said Monday. "Vulnerable Iowans and adults are at risk in Iowa."

Last week, McCoy had sent a letter to Director Palmer, requesting three of his top administrators be present at a meeting organized by Democrats on the Oversight Committee and ready to answer a list of 18 questions.

In an letter shared with reporters, Palmer responded saying "the Department and our staff must focus our attention on full Legislative Committee hearings and are unable to attend."

"It is clear to me that Director Palmer is refusing to meet with us because he is trying to cover up the death of Natalie Finn and the situation related to Malayia Knapp and the incompetence within his department," McCoy said.

But Amy McCoy, a spokesperson with Iowa DHS, said in an email the department is working on responding to Sen. McCoy's list of questions.

"As you know, we have attended several meetings with the senator including providing a confidential briefing, provided presentations at the senator's request and made written responses," McCoy said.

McCoy added DHS cannot speak about specific cases due to confidentiality laws and because the department doesn't want to risk jeopardizing the criminal case against Finn's parents.

"Natalie Finn's death was tragic and we are all saddened by what this young woman suffered," McCoy said. "DHS has taken a close look at its policies, practices and personnel and taken action accordingly. To assert that there is some type of cover-up is absolutely inaccurate, especially in light of the confidential briefings we have provided at the request of several legislative leaders."

Governor Terry Branstad accused Democrats during his weekly press conference of politicizing the case.

"I think it's terrible to play politics with the tragic death of a teenage girl," Branstad said. "This now is in the hands of the Polk County Attorney's Office and the last thing we ought to do is have the politicians screw this up and not cause justice to be done in this tragic incident."

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