DES MOINES, Iowa — Natalie Finn, the West Des Moines teenager who starved to death in October, was wearing an adult diaper and lying on the linoleum floor of her bare bedroom when police and medics discovered her, according to newly unsealed court documents.
The 16-year-old "appeared to have been laying on the floor ... in her own waste for some time," West Des Moines police Det. Chris Morgan wrote in an affidavit. She died a short time later at a hospital.
The home reeked of both human and animal waste. Blankets that were "heavily soaked" in what officers believed was urine covered the floor of the room Natalie shared with two of her siblings, according to the documents. The room had no beds or furniture.
"Many animals roamed freely, including well over a dozen kittens and cats," Morgan wrote. "There were numerous kennels with dogs scattered inside the residence."
Details into Finn's death became public Tuesday when a judge's order to keep search warrant documents under seal expired. The search warrant application filed by Morgan describes investigators' interviews with three surviving Finn children, two of whom were found to be underweight and suffering from bedsores after medics took their sister to a hospital.
Nicole Finn, 42, is facing a charge of first-degree murder for Natalie's death and several other felonies for her treatment of two of Natalie's siblings, a 15-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl. All three children were adopted. Finn's ex-husband, Joseph Finn, 46, is facing several charges of kidnapping, neglect or abandonment and child endangerment.
Natalie Finn died from emaciation because of the denial of critical care, according to the Polk County medical examiner's office.
Both parents have remained in the Polk County Jail since their arrests in December and are awaiting a trial scheduled for October.
The teen's death has prompted increased oversight from Iowa legislators, including at a hearing Monday where state Sen. Matt McCoy, D-West Des Moines, questioned whether staff reductions at the Iowa Department of Human Services have affected the safety of children. The Iowa Citizens Aide Ombudsman has launched its own investigation in hopes of improving services and processes to prevent future child deaths.
"What happened to not only Natalie but her siblings was preventable," McCoy said Wednesday when contacted by a reporter about the documents.
McCoy, who received a confidential briefing on the case and has spoken to a DHS investigator who was fired after Finn's death, told the Register in January that a principal at West Des Moines' alternative high school, Walnut Creek, had reported to child protective workers that Natalie Finn would come to school dirty and hungry.
According to Morgan's newly unsealed affidavit, police and child protective workers found "ample" food in the house during a previous visit to the Finn home in August. They found that Natalie Finn was making her own choice not to eat — despite a report that her mother was not feeding her, according to the affidavit. The DHS workers and police determined the allegations of abuse were unfounded, but they never sought physical examinations of Finn's health, McCoy has said.
McCoy, who represents parts of West Des Moines, said that he believes the fired investigator had genuine concerns about the children that weren't reflected in the detective's affidavit. The senator said the worker told him that it was apparent during interviews with the siblings that they feared Nicole Finn, but that there wasn't enough evidence found to remove them from the home.
"I think she believed that there was something going on and that these kids were being food deprived," McCoy said.
Officers and medics returned to the house for an emergency call Oct. 24. Finn was found not breathing and unresponsive, according to the warrant application.
Nicole Finn told investigators she had attempted CPR on her daughter after a younger sibling found Natalie on her back with vomit coming out of her mouth around 7 p.m., according to the application.
The mother claimed that Natalie and her siblings woke up around 9:30 a.m. Natalie had a peanut butter smoothie fed to her by her younger sister, the document said.
Finn described her late daughter as a troubled teenager with a mental health disorder, telling the investigators that Natalie and two of her siblings would go to the bathroom on the floor in the home "out of spite and defiance," Morgan wrote. Joe Finn confirmed in his own interview with investigators that he had recently removed carpeting in the bedroom where Natalie was found and replaced it with linoleum "because it was so soiled by the bodily waste from the children," the application said.
The father admitted to investigators that he helped to nail shut a window on the bedroom after the siblings were caught sneaking out to beg for food at a convenience store near the home. Joe Finn said the children lived full time with their mother, but were allowed to visit him and had greater freedoms when they were with him.
"Joe stated that when the kids came to his residence they were allowed to use the restroom and eat food unsupervised, which was contrary to the rules in Nicole's home," Morgan wrote.
Morgan wrote that the investigators determined Nicole Finn controlled how much food the three siblings received.
Natalie Finn was being home-schooled by her mother at the time of her death, and two of her siblings were also not attending school that day, according to the warrant. Both Nicole Finn and the 15-year-old who was home told police that the children were napping from around 2 p.m. that day until around 7 p.m., while the mother worked on her computer promoting the animal rescue that she operated out of the home.
The 14-year-old daughter told investigators that Natalie "often refused to eat" and was so weak that she needed help eating, Morgan wrote. The sister reported trying to feed Natalie on the morning before her death, but claimed that the 16-year-old could not sit up on her own. The girl also claimed that Natalie had been "moaning" in her sleep in the nights before her death and complained of being so cold that she needed extra blankets and a space heater in the room.
According to the affidavit, another 15-year-old son living with the family had greater privileges than his three siblings. He was allowed by Nicole Finn to cook for the family and slept in a bedroom "typical for a teenager" that had a bed, TV and other furniture, Morgan wrote.
Investigators collected a wide range of potential evidence from the home, including Nicole Finn's iPhone, two iPads, another tablet device and computers, according to an inventory unsealed with the other documents. Morgan wrote in his affidavit that investigators were looking for any evidence that could show what the two parents knew about the health conditions of their children and whether any medical appointments had been made for them with professionals.
Morgan wrote that he believed there could be messages exchanged between Joe and Nicole Finn about the "declining health and obvious undernourishment" of the three siblings.
DHS officials have said that the agency has made changes and is doing new training for employees in the wake of Finn's death.