State Ombudsman reports failures in Iowa DHS over death of teen in 2017

Published: Sep. 8, 2020 at 10:18 AM CDT
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DES MOINES, Iowa (KCRG) - The State Ombudsman said in a report released on Tuesday the horrific abuse and starvation of a 16-year-old girl in 2017 may have been avoided if the Iowa Department of Human Services had been more diligent and communicated better with each other.

Sabrina Ray was found dead on May 12, 2017 at a home in Perry. She weighed just 56 pounds. Medical examiners said her death was caused by severe malnutrition.

The Ombudsman’s report said the Iowa DHS received 11 child abuse reports against Sabrina’s adoptive parents, Marc and Misty Ray, between 2010 and 2015.

Several of those reports said Sabrina looked extremely thin and unhealthy, but investigations closed before receiving a response to confirm whether the Rays had taken Sabrina to a doctor or not.

The report said other allegations accused the Rays of beating and belittling their foster children and even going so far as to force the children to drink soapy water, stand over cold vents and eat their own vomit.

The Ombudsman concluded the Iowa DHS could have handled these reports with more vigor and with greater skepticism of the Ray’s explanations of the situation.

The report also said a DHS worker even quit her job out of frustration after being silenced by a supervisor when trying to make several abuse reports for the foster children.

Another DHS daycare inspector failed to check the bedroom where Sabrina died citing a misunderstanding of a policy requiring a complete examination of the house. The room was later found to have evidence of locks, alarms and coverings on the doors and windows.

“It is no exaggeration to say this investigation brought me to tears,” said Ombudsman Kristie Hirschman. “I cried at the atrocities Sabrina was subjected to, and I was angry that so many trained officials at DHS had misplaced their trust in individuals who were so depraved. We must all do better for our children.”

The Rays and three family members were convicted in the death of Sabrina and mistreatment of her siblings following Sabrina’s death. Police said Sabrina was unable to walk or talk because an adoptive brother “drop-kicked” her down basement stairs just weeks before her death.

The 146-page report, titled “Misplaced Trust: An Investigation of the Death of Sabrina Ray,” made 13 recommendations for improvements at the Iowa DHS. Of those, the DHS agreed to explore consulting with medical professionals on cases, and to ensure welfare and child regulatory staff are alerted to allegations of child abuse.

See the full report here.

In a response to the report, a spokesperson for the Iowa DHS gave this statement to TV9:

"Our team is dedicated to the families we serve. We were all deeply saddened by the loss of both Sabrina and Natalie. We are committed to learning from these tragedies so we can improve the safety net DHS provides for Iowa’s children. Since the investigation began, the Department took action and continues to take action to improve the way we support Iowa families.

This is the second investigative report published this year by the State Ombudsman reviewing tragic child fatality cases dating back to 2016 and 2017. With one exception, the Ombudsman’s recommendations in the most recent report are unique to the Ray tragedy. Due to the similarities in the cases and the ongoing work from the previous report, DHS' response to the Ombudsman includes a response to each of the new recommendations and provides an update on the status of our response to the Finn report.

The Department is grateful to the Ombudsman for their insightful recommendations and looks forward to continuing to work together to ensure the safety of all of Iowa’s children."

Matt Highland, Public Information Officer and Bureau Chief of Communications, Department of Human Services

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