116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
It’s 2:30 in the morning, and my eyes are wide open. This happens at roughly the same time every day, and for many years I attributed it to being a poor sleeper. However, recently while seeking people to interview for this column and describing my regular schedule of interrupted sleep, my sister said to me, “It’s probably because that’s when the staff woke you up every night. That’s what they did to Rachel.”
I was shaken by this now obvious and logical conclusion. Each night for a year, beginning at age 16, a staff member at a juvenile facility in Des Moines shone a flashlight in my face to make sure I hadn’t escaped into the darkness, my infant son in tow. It has been many years ago now, and it had never occurred to me that the scars of my past were so completely embedded in my daily life in ways I still haven’t come to terms with.
For those of us who lived it, the consequences are still keeping us up at night.
For Rachel, the experience is so fresh that her voice wavers while recounting her terror as two adults entered her home at 4 a.m. and pulled her from the southeast Cedar Rapids bed where she slept at the request of her parents. “I was sixteen years old. I ran away and hid under a car, and they pulled me out and handcuffed me. I was taken to a wilderness camp for a month and then sent to a boarding school on an old tobacco plantation in Virginia. The ‘therapy’ at the school was traumatic.”
Rachel described to me adults instructing other children to call her lewd and inappropriate names, forcing her to write out in graphic detail her sexual history over and over again, and to reenact her own rape in front of the entire student body.
“I had been raped in the 7th grade by a guy in his 20s,” she told me. “Feeling shamed and embarrassed about the rape, and having no support from my parents — they didn’t even press charges — was what led me to act out in the first place. During group therapy, they made all the other students tell me that my rape was my fault and call me a w***e.”
The Carlbrook School in Virginia where Rachel spent three years was closed in 2015. Following its closure, actress Elizabeth Gilpin released a memoir detailing her own horrific experience at the private school. Elizabeth’s work echoes all of the experiences Rachel described, including interrogations and group psychological torture.
Anna’s first experience with being “sent away” occurred at age 12; she was sent first to a juvenile facility in Cedar Rapids to determine her next placement, then sent to MHI in Independence where she was exposed to older children and teens who taught her about self-harm as a coping mechanism.
Following the birth of her son two years later, she was sent to the Iowa Juvenile Home/Girls State Training School in Toledo. This facility was the subject of much public scrutiny after being sued by a former resident who spent over nine months in solitary confinement.
The sprawling 27-acre campus of the Toledo facility, with nearly 90 percent of their funding coming from the state, was home to what Anna calls “the big house” — the separate building filled with standard jail cells where solitary confinement took place.
“If you acted up, or didn’t follow rules they would put you on “desk,” Anna explained. “You had to sit at a desk facing the wall, no looking left or right. You could write at the desk, but no one could speak to you, not even your parents. They could put you there for a day, a week, or a month. If you were really bad — they sent you to the big house. I was sent to the big house once for getting in a fight. It was freezing cold because the cells were underground, and no one spoke to you — they just brought you food. There were no blankets, there was no chair, just the floor. You just sat on the floor shivering and waited for it to be over.”
The woman who brought the lawsuit that closed the Toledo facility spent over nine months of her youth shivering on the floor underground in Toledo. She beat her head violently against the wall, hoping for human contact, for someone to notice that she was alive. When she attempted suicide, they punished her with additional solitary confinement. In 1997, a 13-year-old died in one of these rooms, restrained and alone. Following the closure of Toledo, youth still in that facility were transferred to another where the abuse only intensified.
Last year, Paris Hilton released a documentary entitled “This Is Paris” in which she describes her own experiences with abuse in a youth facility and the way it has changed her life. Much like those I have encountered, she describes fitful sleep, nightmares and an inability to trust the people around her — even her own family.
There is something nauseating about the way that our society is willing to discard girls in crisis at such a young age; especially those who are victims of sexual trauma, as has been the case for nearly all of the women I have spoken to who were sent to facilities as children. One was raped in a public park by an adult who never faced accountability. Another was raped as a 13 year old by a pedophile who fathered her child. I spent time in a facility with a girl who was there because she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by her father, who was also the father of her own child. As recently as a few years ago, someone I spoke with casually at a holiday event lamented the closure of Toledo, saying to me “I knew some really good people running that place.”
Further, both Carlbrook and Toledo were in locations rife with historic trauma.
Carlbrook was built at a former tobacco plantation (more accurately described as a slave labor camp where people of African descent were incarcerated until their death).
The Toledo facility opened in 1920, about 9 years after the closure of Indian Industrial School where government officials worked diligently to separate Indigenous children from their families and tribal traditions in the same city. I have not been able to ascertain at the time of publication whether the facility was built on the same grounds.
Rather than working to heal our village children, the solution has been out of sight out of mind. And for those of us who lived it, the consequences are still keeping us up at night.
Note: The names of those interviewed for this column have been changed to protect their anonymity.
Sofia DeMartino is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org