Why Is Iowa Failing to Protect Abused Disabled Kids?

Published on
January 22, 2014

Stephanie Woodard, a 2012 National Health Journalism Fellow, wrote this story for the Native news website, Indian Country Today Media Network. 

The emergency room doctor was furious at what he had seen, recalled Audre’y Eby, who is Rosebud Sioux and the mother of disabled 16-year-old twins. One of her sons, who is blind and autistic, squirmed on the examination-room table, screaming, “Ow, ow, it hurts!” The doctor had found livid red and purple bruises covering his penis and scrotum, according to the Nebraska hospital’s records. Those injuries would soon lead to an arrest warrant for the mother—not because she had caused the harm, but because she did not return her son, along with his wheelchair-bound twin, to their abusers.

Indian child welfare expert Frank LaMere called the twins’ situation more extreme than any he’d seen in his many years of work in the field. “These boys are suffering,” said LaMere, who is Winnebago and the director of Four Directions Community Center, in Sioux City, Iowa.

The day before the ER visit, Eby drove from the Nebraska farm where she lives with her husband, Faron, to pick up her boys from their father in Iowa. It was early August of 2013, and she was going to have them for the once-a-month weekend visit the courts allow her. The boys’ father is Eby’s ex-husband; he has physical custody of the kids, and his live-in girlfriend is their primary caretaker. Eby and the boys are Native, and the father and his girlfriend are white—facts that LaMere says overshadow decisions that social-services professionals and the courts make on the children’s behalf.

During the five-hour drive to Nebraska, both twins complained. Eby put the grumbling down to the road trip—a long one for such special-needs kids. The sighted twin has cerebral palsy and can suffer painful muscle spasms, and his brother has residual discomfort from a vehicle accident he was in with his father a few years ago. “We stop for breaks, but it’s a lot of sitting still,” Eby said.

The next day, the blind twin began complaining again, and Eby saw blood in his overnight diaper. Alarmed, she and Faron loaded both boys into their car and headed for the ER. After the exam, at a moment when only health-care personnel were present, the doctor took the opportunity to ask his patient, “Who did this to you?” The child named his father’s girlfriend. The doctor questioned the sighted twin, who confirmed his brother’s story.

The doctor told Eby that the injuries were consistent with being kicked in the groin. He immediately called Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services to report alleged child abuse, hospital records show. Eby says the physician also warned her that if she didn’t keep the boys until their wellbeing could be guaranteed in Iowa, he’d have to report her for exposing children to an unsafe situation: “He said Nebraska law required him to do that.”

Eby’s fateful decision to keep her kids in Nebraska soon led to an Iowa judge issuing a warrant for her arrest. She is trapped between the laws of two states and fearful for her sons’ safety.

The Nebraska doctor’s report launched an extensive investigation by Iowa’s Child Protective Services (CPS). The investigation included another physical exam and interviews of social workers, teachers and others who’d interacted with the twins. The boys participated in a Telemed closed-circuit TV interview observed by social-services and law-enforcement personnel in Iowa and Nebraska. (The twins’ names, and that of their father, whose last name they bear, are being withheld to protect the children’s privacy. All official documents quoted here were obtained under Iowa law.)

Both children claimed the kicking occurred after the blind twin was discovered masturbating. He tells the interviewer that his dad had once threatened that “he’s gonna cut my privates off” for doing that. At one point, the boy begs, “Please help me. I’m scared.”

The investigation led to a determination that the father’s girlfriend caused the groin injuries, which means the abuse was “founded.” The father and girlfriend already had several abuse and neglect determinations between them. CPS gave the twins its highest score for risk of abuse and recommended a criminal investigation.

The girlfriend has appealed the most recent abuse finding, according to Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) documents. No charges appear to have been filed against her. She claimed the boy did the damage to himself and told CPS, “I love the boys and would never do anything to hurt either one of them.”

The father told ICTMN that whatever happened didn’t happen in Iowa and that the couple would appeal more of the abuse and neglect rulings. Over the years, fourteen additional allegations have been investigated and dismissed, he noted.

Iowa DHS documents record a startling list of incidents at the father’s home: Among many, the father recently pressed on the wheelchair-bound twin’s nose until it bled, resulting in one of the founded-abuse determinations; during that altercation, the father is described as splitting the child’s lip, hitting him with a belt and causing a rug burn on his head. On another occasion, the dad poured hot sauce down that boy’s throat while the girlfriend pressed her elbow into his neck to ensure he swallowed it. A social worker recounts watching the father smash a sandwich onto the blind boy’s forehead, purportedly to get him to eat his lunch. The girlfriend has stuffed a cloth down one boy’s throat to silence him. Punishments include cold showers.

Social workers describe quasi-military discipline. “I’m trying to instill values like honor, loyalty and courage in my children,” the father said. “If that’s wrong, then a lot of parents are wrong.”

Judy Yellowbank, who is Winnebago and the program director at Four Directions Community Center, likened the twins’ treatment to torture. She charged that there’s a double standard in child welfare. “Native parents would be behind bars if they had committed the child abuse and neglect that these two white caregivers have,” Yellowbank said.

Following the recent kicking incident and subsequent abuse finding, Iowa DHS recommended returning the twins to their father’s home, with the caveat that the live-in girlfriend no longer be primary caregiver. When asked how that set-up would work from a practical point of view, the father refused to answer.

One of Eby’s attorneys, Judy Freking, of LeMars, Iowa, asked, “What is the purpose of a child-abuse investigation if, upon concluding that abuse occurred, DHS does not get involved, and DHS does not offer any services to correct the problem that led to the abuse of these boys?”

The father is determined to get the kids back, saying Iowa can provides them more services than rural Nebraska, where the Ebys’ farm is. He recently went to Iowa juvenile court, claiming that his ex-wife was keeping the boys in Nebraska because of “extreme hostility” toward his girlfriend. The judge agreed, writing in an order issued this past September, “It’s apparent this animosity has been a factor.” The judge noted the father’s claim that he had “fully and properly cared for the boys.” The order does not mention the founded abuse and neglect rulings or any criminal investigation.

In October, a district court judge issued an arrest warrant for Eby. She learned of it when it pinged into her email from the Iowa courts’ online system. “I couldn’t cry because my sons were here. I called Faron. He came home from work and sat with the boys, so I could get myself together. Faron has been such a powerful support in all this. We both hope want the boys living on the farm with us.”

After Eby and the boys’ biological father separated in 2003, when the boys were six, she cared for them. When they turned 12, she thought they should get to know their father. “At the time it seemed like a reasonable idea,” Eby recalled. As the problems in the father’s home mounted, she fought to get the boys back, succeeding briefly in 2011. Through all the abuse and neglect findings, Iowa DHS documents reveal, the agency’s goal has generally been to reunite the twins with their father, and the courts have concurred. He receives their Social Security and other subsidies.

Attorney Freking wondered if the situation would have played out similarly if Eby had committed the abuse. LaMere has an answer, and it’s simple: No. He said that Eby’s situation is emblematic of the double standard Yellowbank described. Indian parents are expected to leap enormous hurdles to keep their kids—with no second chances and no benefit of the doubt, said LaMere.

“It does appear that Audre’y and her ex-husband aren’t on equal footing in terms of Iowa DHS recommendations to the courts,” said Freking.

Patterns in Indian child welfare

Recently, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services did a home study that confirmed Eby and her husband provide her twins with a good home. However, past turbulence in Eby’s life, including drug involvement as a young woman, may be why Iowa won’t grant her primary custody. “Audre’y has left those problems behind, she’s a good mother, and her home study is positive—but that’s not good enough,” said LaMere. “Many of us Native people have lived tough lives, and as far as the system is concerned, anything we’ve been involved with follows us forever. We are not allowed to grow and change.”

The phenomenon is common in Indian child welfare, LaMere continued. “I see it in meetings I attend with Native parents. The parent has solved the problem that caused the children to be taken away. Perhaps it hasn’t been an issue for years. But that’s never good enough. At one meeting, a social worker announced she’d found dirty dishes in the sink at the Native mother’s home, so she shouldn’t get her kids back. I became unglued. I stressed that the mother didn’t lose her children over dirty dishes, and they couldn’t be kept from her for this reason.”

The problem has its roots in history. Federal policy long supported forcibly assimilating Native people as a way to solve the “Indian problem.” Starting in the late 1800s, Native children were sent to government- and church-run boarding schools, where “Kill the Indian, save the child,” was the mantra. And many did die—of beatings, starvation and disease. Sexual and emotional abuse led others to commit suicide. The pervasive trauma, touching virtually every Indian family, stalks Native communities to this day.

During the mid-20thcentury, boarding schools were closed or turned over to the tribes, and the Indian Adoption Project took over as the assimilation mechanism. This federal program, aided by states and churches, swept about a third of Native children into non-Native homes. After hearing much testimony, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in 1978 in an effort to stem the social and cultural holocaust.

ICWA established Indian preferences for placement of Indian children like Eby’s sons, whether they are enrolled tribal members or eligible for enrollment. ICWA allows tribes to intervene on behalf of their children and requires “active” efforts keep Indian kids with Indian families. “Legally, that means more than ‘reasonable’ efforts,” said LaMere. “It means busting your butt to make it happen.”

In the real lives of Native people, it just doesn’t work out that way. “If you’re having any problems with the system, they’ll take your kids anytime they want,” said a Santee Sioux grandfather, whose granddaughter and grandniece died after being adopted out of his family—one at the hands of her new father and the other by drowning.

ICWA may be federal law, but its enforcement takes place county by county, according to LaMere. He described progress in applying the law in one Iowa jurisdiction—Woodbury County, with its large Native population centered in Sioux City. “I have to believe that if Audre’y’s case had been dealt with here, she would have gotten custody of her sons. However, in other parts of Iowa, and in many states, old attitudes persist about Native people.” There’s a sometimes unspoken and sometimes openly acknowledged belief that American Indians can’t or shouldn’t take care of their kids, LaMere said. Neither the Iowa DHS Native Unit, which oversees Native-related cases, nor the Rosebud Sioux Tribe responded to requests for an interview about these issues.

The Iowa courts’ seeming inability to deal even-handedly with Native people causes ambiguities for other agencies, including law enforcement. In a phone interview, local Iowa police chief Dan Kremer, who observed the CPS Telemed interviews related to the blind twin’s ER visit, said at first that some were “out to hang” the father and his girlfriend. “Maybe they need hanging,” Kremer then added, “but so far the courts have not gone after them.” He pointed out that the situation in the home “has been going on for a long time.”

Looking forward

Since the twins have been on the Nebraska farm, they’ve put weight on their once-emaciated frames, and Eby has let their crewcuts grow out. “They look so handsome now!” she said. The other day, she recalled, one son told her, “I don’t feel shrunken any more.” She enjoys seeing them caught up in the rhythms of farm life. “Family comes to visit. We have real sit-down dinners with no TV, and Faron makes root beer floats on Saturday nights.”

Eby called LaMere an important ally. “He says to focus on the good, pray and be mindful of what we have. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to express the pain of all this, but the love I can.”

LaMere sees a lesson: “The Creator sent us these two boys as teachers—to instruct us to renew our fight to keep our kids safe and our families intact.”

For Eby’s family, the future is uncertain. “On January 6, I’ll turn myself in at an Iowa police station,” she said. “Frank and my lawyer will be there. It should be okay. I should be able to pay the $1,000 bond and return to Nebraska. If I go through this, I’ll be able to ask for a new court date and hopefully will eventually get custody.”

Audre’y Eby paused. “Somehow, life has to be bearable for my boys. Is there anything else I can do?

Photograph courtesy of Audre'y Eby