DES MOINES — Some Iowa foster parents have objected to new state rules that would require them to have their own children vaccinated and would bar them from spanking their own kids.
“It’s not the state’s duty to parent children that are biological or adopted to the family,” said Sam Jones, an Iowa pastor who has served as a foster parent.
The Iowa Department of Human Services is reassessing the rules in light of such complaints, spokesman Matt Highland said.
“Director (Kelly) Garcia is hearing these concerns and exploring the available options to balance both the safety and well-being of Iowa’s foster children while preserving parental rights,” Highland wrote this week in an email to the Des Moines Register, part of the USA TODAY network.
“We apologize for any confusion this has caused for our foster families and we are grateful for their service in providing safe homes for Iowa’s children in need.”
Iowa’s foster parents already are prohibited from spanking or using other corporal punishment on foster children, and they generally must ensure foster children are up to date on vaccinations, Highland said. Under the new rules, those requirements also would apply to the foster parents’ own children living in the home.
More than 5,000 Iowa children are in foster care, including many who are staying with relatives. The state has 2,516 licensed foster families, who can take in unrelated children.
Highland said the new rules were part of Iowa’s effort to comply with the federal “Family First Act,” a 2018 law that requires changes in foster care.
Iowa officials received federal approval for their proposed foster care rules in 2019, and the changes were to go into effect Sept. 1. Concerns surfaced after the Department of Human Services notified foster parents recently that they would have to sign a 17-point “foster family assurances agreement” spelling out many of the requirements.
Jones and his wife, Sarah, have been foster parents to three children. They adopted one of the children, Thomas, who is now 1½ years old. They hope to be foster parents to more children, but would not do so under the new conditions, said Jones.
Authorities have the right to tell families how to care for foster children, who are the state’s responsibility, he said, but they shouldn’t interfere with how people parent their own children unless there is evidence of abuse. “We’re all about family liberty,” he said.
Jones said he and his wife will decide on a “case by case basis” which vaccinations to give Thomas. He also said he is opposed to child abuse, but considers physical disciplining appropriate.
The Joneses received a Department of Human Services email about the new rules on Monday. The letter includes an explanation of the ban on “corporal or degrading punishment” of any children in the household where a foster child lives. “Corporal punishment is any form of physical discipline in which a child is spanked, paddled or hit in any part of the body with a hand or instrument,” the letter says.
An advocate for children’s safety said he agrees with the department’s new ban on corporal punishment, even for foster parents’ own children.
Greg Bellville, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Iowa, said non-violent disciplinary tactics are just as effective as physical punishment and help promote a positive relationship between a caregiver and child.
“Kids that are in the foster care system have already experienced some level of trauma,” Bellville said. “Witnessing physical discipline is something that can re-trigger or re-traumatize some of those kids based on what their previous experiences are.”
But Bellville said such rule changes can bring friction.
“I’m not surprised that there were objections –– it’s new, and change is hard,” Bellville said. “The fact that they are saying, ‘We put these rules out, we hear this feedback from people in the community, let’s take a step back and reevaluate,’ … I respect the fact that they’re taking the time to do that.”
Jones contends there needs to be a distinction between child abuse and reasonable corporal punishment, such as slapping a child’s hand away from an open flame.
Jones also said such serious rule changes should be made by elected legislators.
“It’s not something that should be taken care of by bureaucratic overstep,” he said.
Iowa’s foster family rules include several other provisions:
- Foster parents must not use illegal drugs or abuse alcohol, and they must not smoke in foster children’s presence, in their home or a car used to transport the foster children.
- If the foster homes have swimming pools, foster families must follow several safety rules.
- Foster families may not post photos or descriptions of foster children on social media. Doing so “is a breach of confidentiality and considered a serious license violation,” the letter says.
- A child older than 5 may not sleep in the same room as a child of the opposite sex.
- All caregivers must be vaccinated against whooping cough, unless they have a medical reason not to be.
Follow Maya Miller on Twitter: @mmillerDSM.
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