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Closure of Iowa Juvenile Home sparks conflict and debate

The Iowa Juvenile Home (IJH), a center for the treatment of delinquent youth and children in need of assistance located in Toledo, was closed on Wednesday, Jan. 15 after receiving criticism, mainly concerning its use of extended isolation.

The home, which is located about 25 miles to the northeast of Grinnell, has provided housing and schooling for both juveniles with a criminal history and victims of household abuse who have been placed in the home under court order for over 50 years.

However, last year, Disability Rights IOWA, a federally funded protection and advocacy agency for people with disabilities and mental illnesses, investigated the facility and found that the IJH was not in compliance with basic standards of living and education.

“We were monitoring that facility, as we monitor many other facilities, and we found girls in isolation cells for months at a time, which is illegal to put them in for that long and not the best practice either … so we got the girls out of the cells, and we continued to investigate,” said Jane Hudson, Executive Director and Investigations Team Leader for Disability Rights IOWA.

Besides the use of isolation cells and long-standing isolation, the organization further uncovered that the facility did not meet a set standard of education deemed adequate by the Iowa Department of Education, and subsequently filed a state complaint.

The disclosure of these violations in an exposé published in The Des Moines Register in July prompted action by Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who formed a task force to address the issue, consisting of the Iowa Department of Human Services Director and four other individuals involved in the fields of child advocacy, special education and juvenile law.

The task force found that the Iowa Juvenile Home’s practice of maintaining a mixed facility of delinquent girls and children in need of assistance was not a sound practice. Therefore, on Monday, Dec. 9 they recommended that the 21 residents of the IJH be moved to other institutions.

Iowa Department of Human Services spokesperson Amy Lorentzen McCoy clarified the task force’s recommendation in an email to the S&B:

“The Iowa Juvenile Home Protection Task Force said it would serve the best interest of the youth by providing treatment in licensed and/or accredited settings. That could not easily be done with the mixed population of youth at the Iowa Juvenile Home, which did not have regular, formal licensing inspections or accreditation.”

Ultimately, Gov. Branstad decided to close the facility, but shortly thereafter, he was met with resistance from legislators who brought a court case against him in the name of the state government workers union.

“[Legislators] said that the governor overstepped his authority—that he couldn’t do that and the court agreed and said reopen the home,” Hudson said.

Although the Polk County District Court ruled for the home to reopen, it is unclear as to whether or not Gov. Branstad will abide by the court’s decision. Those following the issue have voiced concerns regarding the fate of the relocated children and argued that the politics of the dispute are surpassing the interests of the children.

“Gov. Branstad’s utmost concern is the health, education and safety of the children who resided at the Iowa Juvenile Home,” said Gov. Branstad’s spokesman Jimmy Center in an email to the S&B. “The governor believes the children can be best served, treated, and receive the education they deserve through alternative placement.”

Disability Rights IOWA strongly supports the closure of the IJH and believes that the actions taken were in the best interest of the youth housed there.

“I think it was a failing facility,” Hudson said. “We supported the governor’s decision to close it.”

All the former residents of the home have been placed in other homes and around 100 employees have been laid off. According to McCoy, the physical campus of the Toledo facility is being maintained, but there does not seem to be much chance for the home’s reopening.

Amidst the ongoing dispute, Grinnell College students who were involved with the IJH in the past reflected on their positive experience working with residents of the IJH.

Hanna Lee ’17 volunteered at the facility during the 2013 fall semester, teaching classes on how to develop healthy relationships.

“Before I arrived, I was informed by our volunteer supervisor of the current problems in the facility … If there were any problems of such abuse, I did not notice it during the six weeks I worked there as a volunteer,” Lee said. “I was pretty surprised and sad to hear that they closed it down earlier this year.”

Lee even described an overall positive relationship between residents and the staff of the IJH.

“I thought the staff members and the girls got along really well … There was one staff member named Angie that many of the girls looked to as a mother figure,” she said.

In the future, the Iowa State Legislature aims to create a place that can best fit the needs of the children, while meeting all accreditation and licensing standards by advocating for a smaller facility exclusively for delinquent youth.

“The bill says this smaller facility just for the delinquent girls—not for the children in need of assistance, which were the majority of kids there—can be anywhere in Iowa … I can’t predict where it will eventually be, but we’re hoping it will be a very small facility with very highly trained staff,” Hudson explained.

For now, as the fate of the IJH remains uncertain, all the former residents will remain in locations that continue to be monitored by Disability Rights IOWA.

“We’ve monitored those settings and for the most part they are getting the treatment and education they need,” Hudson said.

Representatives of the IJH could not be reached for comment for this article.

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    Todd SpragueFeb 23, 2014 at 9:01 am

    I would be willing to talk more with you about this, feel free to email me. Also search ‘KEEP IJH OPEN’ on Facebook and request to join!