Reynolds must act to protect Iowa's most vulnerable youth
Three years after the closure of the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo, local officials are unable to provide safe and humane in-state treatment facilities for severely troubled teen girls. And, as a recently filed federal lawsuit makes clear, out-of-state placements can yield even greater abuses.
In 2014, in the wake of a District Court order to reopen the juvenile home (the case later dismissed as moot by the Iowa Supreme Court), former Gov. Terry Branstad assured Iowans he did the right thing when he made a unilateral decision to close the facility.
“These children are now in licensed and accredited facilities where they are being better served, receiving the education they were denied at the Iowa Juvenile Home and the treatment and care they need,” Branstad said.
Unfortunately, this was not true.
Officials in the Iowa Department of Human Services contracted with other states, including neighboring Wisconsin, where it paid $301 per day, per teen for some girls to be held in a youth prison facility. Two former inmates documented shocking instances of abuse at the hands of their out-of-state caretakers as part of a federal lawsuit.
State officials, according to investigators with Disability Rights Iowa, placed Iowa teens in the care of a neighboring state that had fewer restrictions on use of seclusion and restraint, including 23-hour blocks of solitary confinement with no toilet facilities and pepper spray.
It’s the latest in a slow but consistent trickle of information about how the state is ill-prepared to educate, rehabilitate and care for severely troubled teen girls. And further proof that state officials have failed to make solutions a priority.
“There must be a placement of last resort for Delinquent Girls (a State Training School for Girls) similar to the Boys Training School in Eldora,” a Branstad task force advised in October 2013.
A separate state report in February by the Iowa Girls’ Justice Initiative reached a similar consensus.
Such calls, as well as recommendations by their critics, have gone unanswered. The state’s most vulnerable teen girls remain in limbo, lost to bureaucracy seemingly ripe with abuse.
Gov. Kim Reynolds should order a transparent, systemic review of girls in the juvenile justice system led by Acting Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, formerly with the public defender’s office, and newly minted DHS Director Jerry Foxhoven, who led Gov. Branstad’s initial IJH Task Force. We think they can assemble a diverse team, digest past research and make specific agency and legislative recommendations. An open process, combined with executive branch clout, could break the vicious cycle.
The state must make the girls entrusted to its care a priority. They are not problem commodities to be shipped out-of-state and out-of-mind. If decisions were being made based on their best interests, these types of reports and lawsuits would not be happening.
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