Use of 'isolation rooms' on kids is troubling

By Des Moines Register

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Many of the 50 some children who live at the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo are considered “in need of assistance.” They may have been abused or abandoned by their parents. A foster home may not have worked out, and they may have nowhere else to go.

So these children are moved to Toledo, where they sleep, go to school and spend most of their time in a facility operated by the Iowa Department of Human Services. Government employees are supposed to provide care, education and counseling.

But the employees did not provide that for at least three girls residing at the Toledo facility. The teens were essentially held captive in small, concrete-block cells in a basement on the campus. They remained there for months at a time, sometimes for 23 hours per day, according to a Des Moines Sunday Register investigation by reporter Clark Kauffman.

One girl was held in an isolation cell with a steel door from January 2012 to December 2012. She was allowed out for one hour of exercise and hygiene each day. Though she had not been placed at the facility for any criminal behavior, the state treated her like a criminal who needed to be confined and punished.

These girls were at the mercy of the state. But the state of Iowa let them down in a troubling manner and they became victims of the state. Every public employee who came into contact with these girls, from the hourly workers at Toledo to the top state administrators in the Department of Human Services, failed these girls. They should all be held accountable.

It is impossible to believe that not a single one of the home’s 118 employees knew what is common knowledge for anyone who works with young people: Solitary confinement should be rarely used, as it can be psychologically and physically harmful.

As troubling as blatant ignorance is, perhaps employees did not care these three girls — and who knows how many other youths at Toledo — were being kept in 10- by 12-foot cells for weeks and months. It appears none of them thought it their responsibility to express concern to their bosses, including DHS director Chuck Palmer or Gov. Terry Branstad, who is ultimately responsible for the home.

Indeed, Palmer, in an interview with Kauffman last week, appeared to have a troubling lack of knowledge, and curiosity, about the use of solitary confinement on juveniles at Toledo.

Why weren’t teachers asking why a student did not attend class again? How could the publicly paid attorneys who are supposed to represent the best interests of these girls not know they were being kept in solitary confinement? Is the DHS director trying to hide additional problems by not providing information about isolation practices to this newspaper and by asking the newspaper for more than $31,000 in exchange for relevant public records?

Ultimately, it was outsiders who discovered the wrongdoing and took action to put a stop to the use of solitary confinement for extended periods. Unlike privately run group homes for troubled juveniles, the Toledo home is not licensed by, nor inspected, nor fined by state regulators, as Kauffman reported on Sunday.

Fortunately Disability Rights Iowa, a federally funded organization designed to protect people with disabilities, showed up in Toledo. Investigators discovered the girls last November. They started asking questions. One month after the initial visit, an attorney with Disability Rights Iowa sent a letter to one girl’s guardian ad litem informing the attorney a client “has been isolated in a concrete prison-like cell for 73 days.” The letter was copied to officials including judges and an assistant attorney general.

Within hours the girls were moved to residential cottages on the campus. Soon after, home’s director retired and its clinical director resigned. Now the public is left wondering what is going at the Toledo facility. It’s unclear how many other children have been held or are currently being held in isolation for long periods of time. It’s unconscionable the staff withheld education from one of the girls to try to control her behavior.

The state-run facility has been plagued with problems. Last year, the school principal at the Toledo home resigned after this newspaper asked for a copy of a slide show presented to students and staff during a Christmas program. One slide depicted a skeleton lying in one of the isolation rooms with a caption that said “Dr. Joan was supposed to assess this youth three days into her suspension. Guess she forgot.”

Late last year, four employees were fired over allegations they abused or used excessive force restraining children at the home. Now the public learns the facility has been holding teens for months in solitary confinement.

It appears the state is incapable of operating this facility in a manner that the people of Iowa expect. Perhaps it’s because administrators operate with no oversight or fear of fines. Perhaps it’s because, long-term, union-protected workers are complacent.

Whatever the reason, the private sector could step up and fill the void for such services — and be subjected to regular oversight from state regulators.

It has been said a society is judged based on how it treats its most vulnerable people. That truth makes this a very dark period in Iowa’s history.

 

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