Des Moines Register. December 20, 2016

Did DHS do all that it could to help Natalie Finn?

A 16-year-old West Des Moines girl has died of starvation.

That is the stark reality. And that one fact, by itself, should have the public and state policymakers up in arms.

But when you combine that one fact with the accompanying allegations that the girl, Natalie Finn, was tortured by her parents and deprived of food, clothing and health care over a prolonged period, you can see that outrage isn't the only response that's needed here. The public demands answers as to how something like this could possibly happen in Iowa -- and for that we should be grateful. We're not yet so numbed by tragedy, or so easily distracted by the minutia of our own lives, that the starvation of a young girl in our midst fails to trigger calls for a serious reappraisal of our child-protection system.

Basu: Where was intervention to save starving teen?

Officially, the cause of Natalie's death is emaciation due to the denial of critical care. Her mother, 42-year-old Nicole Marie Finn, faces charges of first-degree murder and child endangerment causing death. In addition, both she and Nicole's father, 45-year-old Joseph Michael Finn II, are charged with first-degree kidnapping, child endangerment causing serious injury and neglect of a dependent person.

They stand accused of secretly confining Natalie and two of her siblings, a 14-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy, inside their home and subjecting the children to "unreasonable force, torture or cruelty."

In the months before Natalie's death, one of the Finns' neighbors, Becca Gordon, reported signs of abuse and neglect to West Des Moines police. On May 31, Gordon told officers that Natalie said she and her sister had been locked up by their mother for two days without food. The responding police officer wrote in his report that he contacted a social worker with Iowa's child welfare agency, the Department of Human Services:

"I contacted DHS and advised them of the incident. The worker I spoke with was Lauren Templeman. This report was not faxed to DHS since Templeman did not know the number."

Why couldn't a DHS worker who has at least 10 years of experience at the agency track down her employer's fax number?

What did DHS do in response to that call from the West Des Moines police?

DHS isn't talking. And this isn't the first time the agency has opted for silence. Seventeen years ago, after Spirit Lake toddler Shelby Duis died of physical abuse, citizens came forward to say they'd reported evidence of abuse to DHS. At the time, DHS said very little, citing a state law that prohibited public disclosure of any child-abuse information.

In response, the Iowa Legislature passed a law that says the agency "shall disclose" information in child fatalities after consulting with county prosecutors. But that requirement for disclosure doesn't apply in cases where DHS decides, on its own, that disclosure is likely to either jeopardize the criminal prosecution or the rights of the accused.

That is only one of eight exemptions to the disclosure requirement. Collectively, those exemptions enable the agency to remain silent as to its own conduct even in cases where there is no active criminal investigation.

DHS spokeswoman Amy McCoy says the department will answer questions about the Natalie Finn case "in a transparent manner and in the interest of child welfare when it's not at risk of impacting the criminal case."

It's understandable that DHS doesn't want to jeopardize a criminal case, but it's hard to see how a brief description of its own actions would compromise any aspect of the case. The Iowa Legislature and the public deserve to know whether DHS did all that it could to prevent this tragedy.

A year after Shelby Duis died, a state investigation revealed that DHS' failings may have contributed to the girl's death, despite earlier assurances that it had acted appropriately. Gov. Tom Vilsack subsequently fired DHS Director Jessie Rasmussen, who then said she wished she had "pushed the limits" of what she shared with the public about the Duis case.

"I should have expressed my outrage," she said. "I should have let people know how intensely I scrutinized our own staff."

That was a hard-earned lesson for Rasmussen and for DHS. Unfortunately, it's also a lesson that appears to have been forgotten.

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Fort Dodge Messenger. December 23, 2016

EPA plays games with fracking study

Agency appears reluctant to conclude this crucial technique is safe

After six years of investigation at a cost of $29 million, the Environmental Protection Agency finally has come to a conclusion about whether hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells poses a risk to drinking water supplies: We don't know.

Last year, EPA officials released a draft report on their study. It stated fracking has not caused "widespread, systemic" damage to drinking water in the United States.

Recently, the agency released a new report, removing the original conclusion. Now, EPA official Tom Burke told The Associated Press, the conclusion is that, "Data gaps did not allow us to quantify how widespread the impacts are."

In other words, EPA officials were unable to find a smoking gun, but want to leave the door open for new regulations on oil and gas drilling.

Fracking has been used for more than half a century. The practice has been used on more than 300,000 gas and oil wells. Reports of water supplies being contaminated are very rare.

Yet the EPA claims it cannot come to a conclusion on the technique.

Well, not actually. Remember, the agency did release one conclusion, but now is attempting to backpedal. Apparently, science doesn't have to be settled if it doesn't serve the right political purpose.

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Dubuque Telegraph Herald. December 23, 2016

Elective office: Tough decisions, not sidestepping

There might be mixed opinions on whether the Dubuque City Council made the right decision in purchasing a neighboring water system.

It's a complicated issue. Millions of dollars are involved, and there are advantages and disadvantages. City staff laid out the case for council members, with a "buy" recommendation. And that's what the council did, voting 5-0 to purchase the system for $6.1 million as part of a settlement agreement with Central Iowa Water Association.

Of the seven council members, five voted "yes," Jake Rios was absent and Luis Del Toro voted "present."

Del Toro told the TH afterward that he didn't feel right about voting "yes," since he has been crusading for the city to reduce its debt. (That was a major plank in his platform when he won election in 2015.) However, he said a "no" vote could have meant exposing the city to further litigation -- and he didn't like that option, either.

So Del Toro in effect chose not to vote. That doesn't cut it.

Citizens elect their officials -- from City Hall to Congress to the White House -- to learn and consider the issues and make the most informed decisions possible. That doesn't mean only the easy decisions. It especially means the tough decisions.

No one ever promised that holding elective office would always be fun, easy or criticism-free.

Welcome to public service.

Here's what tends to happen: Citizens sitting on the sidelines -- those who aren't holding elected office -- criticize how City Hall runs things. Where local government spends and incurs debt are frequent targets. Then, occasionally, one of those citizens throws his or her hat in the ring runs for City Council. Less frequently, one of them wins election.

Then the learning curve starts. That's where the critics come to realize that much of the time -- let's be clear, not all the time -- city staff makes a solid case for its spending recommendations.

Council members then have the authority -- and responsibility -- to decide whether the recommendations are solid enough to garner their vote. Most of the time, it is yes. But sometimes it is no. And that's how the process should work.

Consider the big expenditures the City of Dubuque has undertaken, things like the Bee Branch and the upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant. Those price tags were huge. But they weren't wasteful expenses; they were investments in this community's future (and, in the case of the wastewater plant, needed to comply with regulations).

The city laid out the case for purchasing the water system in a similar way. Yes, the expense is significant. But to avoid litigation and pave the way for future development around the Southwest Arterial, this was an investment in the future of Dubuque.

You don't agree? Fair enough. If you are a council member, then vote no. If you are a citizen, then vote out the council members with whom you disagree at the next election. (It will be Nov. 7, 2017.)

What council members can't say is, "I want to avoid the litigation but I don't want to increase city debt." Sorry, that is not on the list of choices.

So, while the other council members must answer to the public for their decision, Del Toro now might argue, "It wasn't me. I didn't vote for it." Technically, that's true. He didn't vote at all. He ducked a difficult decision.

There are occasions when we have agreed with critics -- Del Toro is among them -- who complain about city spending. But it's irresponsible to say that all city spending is bad or wasteful.

There is room for debate as to whether the city is right to purchase the water system. But there should be no debate over the role of council members. They need to make the tough decisions, too.

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Burlington Hawk Eye. December 23, 2016

The kids are watching.

We rarely focus on sporting events on this page. We tend to leave that to the sports pages. But Tuesday night's ending of the Iowa-North Dakota game is worthy of comment. And not in a good way.

It got chippy. Hard fouls and an unnecessary last-second lay-up by North Dakota, ultimately ruled to have come after the final buzzer, on what clearly was going to be an Iowa victory, got under Iowa coach Fran McCaffery's skin.

In a snit, McCaffery refused to do the traditional post-game handshake with the other team. Instead, he stormed off the floor. It looked childish.

In his post-game interview, McCaffery said he has a lot of respect for North Dakota coach Brian Jones and his assistant, Jeff Horner. Jones coached at Iowa and Horner was a star player for the Hawkeyes a decade ago. He added, however, "I was unhappy. That's not the way you play."

Sure, on that, he's right. But then again, the Hawkeyes were terrible from the free-throw line and didn't make many three-point baskets, so perhaps that helped fuel his frustration.

We know McCaffery is an emotional guy. We remember a few years ago when, in frustration, he slammed a chair to the floor at a game at Michigan State to get his players' attention. It made ESPN's "SportsCenter."

But coaches also are teachers. Their actions have an impact on their players and those tuning in to watch, especially the kids. So, it was unfortunate he left the floor in a huff. It was unsportsmanlike. It sent a bad message to those tuning in.

Sporting events can get those involved very emotional, especially big-time college coaches where, let's face, it's all about winning. We get that.

But they're also educational. And in today's television and online world, they're also available for all to see, which is why McCaffery's actions at the end of the game went viral, and will be the subject of conversation for the next few days.

University of Iowa spokesman Matt Weitzel told the Associated Press in an email Wednesday that while McCaffery "stands by his concerns regarding some of the unsportsmanlike actions that led to his decision, he since has expressed regret publicly and has apologized to head coach Brian Jones and his team."

What happened Tuesday was unfortunate and we suspect it won't happen again. We hope it doesn't -- especially because the kids are watching.