DES MOINES – Legislation providing what lawmakers called “basic oversight” for children’s residential facilities cleared the Iowa House 74-24 Wednesday.

The lopsided margin did not reflect criticism that Senate File 2304, as amended by the House, was an “empty shell” that did little to protect youngsters from the physical and sexual abuse alleged in a criminal investigation of Midwest Academy that prompted the legislation.

Much of the hour-plus discussion was about an exemption for “bona fide religious organizations,” which critics said are not defined in Iowa law. However, floor manager Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said the exemption applied to the curriculum, not health and safety standards that apply to other institutions. However, the House version also exempts employees of those organizations from the background checks required of school employees.

There were concerns that “bona fide religious organization” may be used by unscrupulous groups to avoid state oversight. It would be naïve to believe religious affiliation isn’t one of the most used vehicles for abuse, said Rep. Art Staed, D-Cedar Rapids.

“When we exempt bona fide religious organizations, whatever that means, we create a hole big enough to drive a truck through,” he said. “It makes this an empty shell. To vote for something so hollow, I’m not sure I can do this.”

Senate Oversight Committee Chairman Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said senators would agree with Staed. Kaufmann later said he would accept language requiring background checks for the employees of children’s residential facilities as long as the Senate didn’t change the curriculum exception.

Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines, D-Des Moines urged passage of the bill because of the urgency to protect children.

Something is needed “to prevent the same types of allegations and instances of abuse that occurred at Midwest Academy,” Gaines said. “We need something in place and like many of the other bills that we pass, it is not without flaws, but it is something.”

Kaufmann agreed, warning that without legislative action lawmakers would be allowing the “wild, wild West where those Midwest Academies not only exist but thrive.”

Currently, he said, there are few if any “requirements, oversight, teeth, inspections, etc.,” on private children’s residential facilities.

“Whether you like how the bill is read or not, this makes advancements,” Kaufmann said. “It provides oversight.”

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James.Lynch@TheGazette.com

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