Government

Boys in Eldora juvenile school mistreated, lawsuit says

Watchdog groups claim inadequate mental health care, overuse of seclusion rooms

The administration building at Eldora Boys Training School. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
The administration building at Eldora Boys Training School. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Two watchdog organizations filed a federal lawsuit Monday against Iowa Department of Human Service officials, asserting youths placed in the state juvenile facility in Eldora are subject to excessive use of seclusion rooms and restraints and do not receive adequate mental health care.

The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa by Disability Rights Iowa and the national Children’s Rights organization. The complaint contends that residents in the facility — Iowa’s main center for delinquent boys — are subjected to illegal practices by staff.

“The school acts in the role of parents for these children,” said Harry Frischer, the lead attorney for Children’s Rights. “It’s supposed to provide rehabilitation and treatment, and what these kids get is exactly the opposite of that.”

The Department of Human Services declined to comment, citing a policy of not speaking on ongoing lawsuits.

The training school holds up to 130 boys ages 12 to 18, most of whom have significant mental health issues, Nathan Kirstein, a Disability Rights Iowa attorney, told The Gazette.

The complaint states defendants don’t provide facility residents with adequate mental health care, and also “administer dangerous psychotropic medication without adequate oversight or informed consent, and unlawfully subject these children to solitary confinement and mechanical restraints as physical punishment for minor infractions of the rules.”

The lawsuit was filed against Jerry Foxhoven, director of Human Services; Richard Shults, administrator of the division of mental health and disability services; and Mark Day, superintendent of the school.

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The lawsuit comes after Disability Rights Iowa released a report in August critical of the facility, outlining issues that are addressed in the complaint.

The report did not call for the closure of the school, but instead a reform on its practices.

“The reason we’ve got to the point of filing a legal complaint is because we’ve tried anything else and DHS remains obstinate,” Kirstein said.

The lawsuit focuses on mental health care at the school. Across the country, up to 70 percent of youths involved in the juvenile justice system have a mental health disorder due to exposure to adverse childhood experiences, including abuse, according to the lawsuit.

Officials at Disability Rights Iowa and Children’s Rights say there is no independent licensure of the school and therefore no oversight — unlike any private juvenile facility that must have a license from the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals.

In addition, the lawsuit says the department fails to employ adequate mental health professions.

The school employs one psychologist — who is not licensed to practice in Iowa — to offer wide-ranging mental health services that include diagnosis and treatment, the lawsuit asserts.

Iowa law does allow a license exception for psychologists providing those services in state facilities. However, the complaint states that by relying on an unlicensed psychologist, as well as other untrained assistants and counselors, the department departs from accepted standards and subjects the residents to “substantial risk of serious harm.”

Disability Rights Iowa and Children’s Rights estimate about 66 percent of the facility’s residents per month are given psychotropic medicine.

The suit contends the drugs are given to residents without appropriate consent and without informing the youth and their parents of potential side effects or alternatives, Frischer said.

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The lawsuit also contends the use of seclusion rooms and a 14-point restraint bed further aggravates mental health conditions.

Boys there are placed in seclusion for a variety of reasons, Frischer said, that include “minor infractions” such as raising their voices or talking in the shower.

The fact that DHS writes rules and regulations for other juvenile facilities limiting these practices shows department officials are aware of long-term harm, Kirstein said.

“It’s one piece of many pieces of evidence that shows that the Department of Human Services is well aware of the harms caused by the use of restraint, the use of seclusion,” Kirstein said. “It’s why they write regulations to begin with on how much that can be used, and the reporting requirements when you do use it.

“That’s not just to make people jump through hoops. They do that because they know of the harms associated with it. And yet they don’t do that with their own facility.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8536; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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