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Complaint alleges sex abuse decades ago at Boys State Training School in Eldora

Accusation filed by man now serving Wisconsin prison term for child sex abuse

The administration building at State Training School for Boys in Eldora is pictured Oct. 18, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazet
The administration building at State Training School for Boys in Eldora is pictured Oct. 18, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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A former Iowan convicted of child sex abuse in Wisconsin alleges he was sexually abused himself as a teenager in the early 1990s by adults who worked at the State Training School for Boys in Eldora.

Rick Harrison Jr., 45, filed a complaint in October with the Eldora Police Department, which later was provided to the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, alleging he was forced by a chaplain and a staff member to have sex in dark corners and private rooms of the state school.

When Harrison, then 14 and 15, tried to tell other school staff what was happening, he said in the complaint he was physically and verbally abused and put in a restraint called “the wrap” — a device a federal judge in another case earlier this year banned after finding State Training School staff used it to punish children.

While the statute of limitations for considering any criminal charges or lawsuits in Harrison’s case is expired, the accusations draw attention to what degree of responsibility state agencies have for investigating conduct alleged to have happened decades ago in a government-run institution.

“What happened to me really changed me,” Harrison said in a phone interview from the Green Bay Correctional Institution, where he is appealing his convictions. “He raped me and he did it for a very long time. I don’t feel like a person like that should be a (minister) anymore. He should be sitting in a prison.”

The complaint

The Boys State Training School, opened in 1873, is a residential school for delinquent boys ages 12 to 18.

Harrison had just turned 14 when he arrived there, according to the complaint, in early 1990. He says it was over a stolen bike.

After a couple of months, he was told to go to the office of the chaplain, who Harrison wrote in the complaint asked him questions about whether he was scared to be at the school, how much he talked with his family and whether he believed in God. The chaplain asked Harrison to sit on his lap and gave him a hug, Harrison said.

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These meetings happened every week until one week the chaplain asked Harrison to pull down his pants, Harrison said. The sexual contact started with the man touching Harrison’s genitals and buttocks, Harrison said.

“After maybe a couple of weeks doing this is when he had me do oral on him saying if I loved God I would do it, so I did and he would always give me stuff afterwards like a Snickers candy bar or M & M stuff he had in his top desk drawer,” Harrison wrote.

The first time Harrison told someone about it, he said he was punished by a staff member.

“He turned me upside down on my stomach and put full retains (restraint) on me which is called ‘the wrap’ and push me up against the wall and said what I had done was the worst thing I could have done, meaning saying something about (the abuse),” Harrison wrote.

Harrison said the officer physically and sexually assaulted him several times over the next few weeks until one day when the chaplain came to visit the teen.

“I ... begged him to let me out of this bed and I would never speak of it again because I made him a promise and I would keep it but he said I have to earn my way out of here first before he could trust me,” Harrison wrote.

The chaplain later had him moved to a private room, the complaint states.

“About twice a week, (he) took me to the old side of the boys’ home, which was on the other side of the road. He took me down some stairs and into a big area of the building that had a lot of old metal bunk beds and some windows kinda up high,” Harrison wrote. “There was nobody at all around or could you hear anybody.”

Harrison remembers one time the chaplain told him he could have anything he wanted from the man’s desk, including model cars, or new clothes if he preferred. Harrison picked a Bible.

‘The wrap’

It’s difficult to corroborate Harrison’s story.

He said in an interview that when he got out of the State Training School, he told his father what had happened.

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His father, who since died of cancer, did not believe him and the rift caused the teen to go into foster care, he said.

Some elements of his story match other available information.

For example, the chaplain he accuses was at the State Training School in the time.

Harrison’s complaint describes “the wrap” as a device state training school staff used to restrain boys, sometimes for prolonged periods.

“After I was there for sometime I could not feel my wrist or feet after this time and I had to go to the bathroom but nobody came so I went on myself,” he wrote about being in the wrap.

A federal judge earlier this year ruled the school “frequently punishes or tortures students” through tools like the wrap as recently as 2017.

“It is a mechanical restraint device consisting of a mattress on a metal bed frame and various Velcro straps,” Judge Stephanie Rose wrote in the March order. “It is a fourteen-point restraint device, meaning there are fourteen points where it restrains an individual’s movement.”

Students reported being left in it for hours.

Rose ordered the wrap be removed from the school within 10 days and the school submit a corrective action plan for other shortcomings, such as inadequate mental health care and isolation as punishment. The order came after a nine-day bench trial in June 2019 over a class-action lawsuit filed in 2017 by two then-students.

School response

Harrison has called or written the State Training School several times in recent years about his allegations. On Aug. 17, two months after his latest letter, he got back a response from Jon Kies, interim superintendent.

“We received your letter dated June 14, 2020, regarding sexual abuse that you indicate occurred while you were a resident at the State Training School in 1990-1991,” Kies wrote in the letter Harrison shared with The Gazette.

Kies included in the letter information about how Harrison could report the alleged abuse to church groups and reach out to the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

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The letter does not say if the Iowa Department of Human Services, which operates the institution, would investigate.

“I hope you find this information helpful. We thank you for bringing this information forward understanding it’s very difficult. We appreciate you speaking up. Please let us know how we can assist further.”

Support for Harrison

Paul Koeniguer, a SNAP volunteer who lives in Des Moines, submitted Harrison’s complaint to the Iowa Attorney General, which started a Clergy Abuse Hotline in 2019. SNAP volunteers who spoke to The Gazette said they are willing to help Harrison despite his criminal record.

“The fact that he’s now in prison doesn’t mean he didn’t suffer the abuse he’s claiming,” said Melanie Sakoda, a SNAP survivor support coordinator based in California.

“That does not discount the possibility he was abused as a child. In fact, it may even be an indicator. This is what started him on the road to where he is now. Reading through the letter he submitted to police, it sounds very believable to me.”

Richard Windmann, a SNAP volunteer in Texas who has provided help to Wisconsin survivors, said he wanted to help Harrison’s complaint get filed, but isn’t interested in helping him in his appeal of the Wisconsin convictions.

“SNAP is not in the business of helping anybody get out of jail,” Windmann said. “That’s simply not what we do. However, he outlined all the abuse as a boy. He wanted to get justice for that. As a victim, how we treat any victim is to help them get justice.”

Wisconsin charges

Harrison pleaded guilty in January 2019 in Ashland County, Wis., to causing mental harm to a child, a Class F felony, going back to 2011 charges, court records state. He was sentenced to six years in prison.

He was charged in 2017 in Dane County, Wis., with first-degree child sex abuse and three counts of bail jumping. He was accused of forcing a 7-year-old girl to perform oral sex on him in 2017. He was found guilty of the charges at trial on Nov. 22, 2019, and sentenced in January to 28 years in prison.

Harrison has withdrawn his guilty plea in the earlier case and is appealing both convictions. He says in the second case he was framed by several people who defrauded him out of money he thought he was putting down on the purchase of a house in Wisconsin.

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Harrison said the alleged abuse in Eldora has nothing to do with what he was convicted of doing in Wisconsin.

“I know for a fact I could never harm a child,” he said. “I got myself mixed up with some bad people.”

He said he decided to come forward about the alleged abuse at the Boys State Training School because he wants to make sure neither the chaplain nor the officer still are in positions where they have access to children.

Statute of limitations

Eldora Police Capt. Anthony Schrad confirmed to The Gazette Oct. 14 he had received Harrison’s complaint alleging sexual abuse by a chaplain and a staff member at the Boys State Training School in the early 1990s. Schrad said he forwarded the complaint to Hardin County Attorney Darrell Meyer, who said it was too late for criminal prosecution.

“Even if he reached 18 in the 1990s, there could be a statute of limitations problem,” Meyer told The Gazette.

Under Iowa law amended in 2019, criminal charges in child sex-abuse cases must be brought within 15 years after the victim turns 18 or until he or she turns 33. For lawsuits, a plaintiff must file within four years of discovering the abuse and the injury it caused.

Two Iowa senators last year proposed eliminating the statute of limitations for criminal charges of child sex abuse, but the bills did not pass.

Advocates for survivors have said sex abuse often is psychologically repressed for decades, which can be too late for taking action. Representatives of church and school groups said removing the time limit could cause huge legal liabilities based on decades-old allegations that might be hard to document.

State response

The Iowa DHS told The Gazette chaplains now are paid through a contract with Youth for Christ. But it was unclear if chaplains were paid by the state then.

The department has attempted to identify the officer Harrison mentioned in the complaint, who Harrison knew only by a nickname.

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“After exhausting possible lines of inquiry, we have not been able to determine who is referred to in the letter,” spokesman Matt Highland wrote in an email.

“While it is difficult to ascertain facts regarding incidents that occurred decades ago, we take every allegation of abuse seriously. We are appalled by the allegations and have referred the matter to the Attorney General’s Office.”

SNAP’s Koeniguer said the state Attorney General’s Office is investigating Harrison’s complaint and has called both Koeniguer and Harrison. Office spokesman Lynn Hicks would not comment on this.

Since the office launched its clergy abuse hotline in 2019, it has received 51 submissions, Hicks said. None has led to criminal charges.

to report abuse

To report current or ongoing abuse, call your local police department or sheriff’s office.

To contact the Iowa Attorney General’s Office Clergy Abuse Hotline, call 855-620-7000 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday or leave a message and a trained advocate will call you back as soon as possible. There is an online submission form on the AG website.

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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