Guest Columnist

Iowa fails to protect its vulnerable in state institutions

This photo taken Dec. 19, 2019, shows a sign with a smiling face greets drivers as they enter the Glenwood Resource Cent
This photo taken Dec. 19, 2019, shows a sign with a smiling face greets drivers as they enter the Glenwood Resource Center campus in Glenwood, Iowa. (Kelsey Kremer/The Des Moines Register via AP)

In a field behind the buildings of our state institutions lie dozens of unmarked graves, some with stones bearing only a number. I saw these nameless stone markers when I was a Johnson County social worker in the 1980s. One of my main duties was to drive hundreds of miles to Glenwood and Woodward State Hospital Schools (now called Resource Centers) three or four times a year to check up on the care and treatment of my county’s residents who lived there.

The problems now being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice have existed for as long as the institutions themselves. No single cause is to blame. Problems are inevitable when people deemed to be “others” are housed in large isolated settings where adequate oversight by family members and professionals is next to impossible.

One problem that is not inevitable is the exploitation of vulnerable citizens for experimentation and surveillance. Thanks to a DOJ investigation in early 2020, Glenwood Superintendent Jerry Rea has been fired. One experiment conducted by Rea at a state hospital in Kansas used a “portable penile plethysmograph” to measure sexual arousal. He may have used a device he patented “for detecting and monitoring the sexual arousal of an individual while the individual is exposed to real-life sexual stimuli.” One result of Rea’s experiment was to show that “levels of sexual arousal … when a participant was wearing underwear and trousers were similar to arousal levels obtained without underwear and trousers.”

I don’t know if whoever hired Jerry Rea was aware of his predilections and his patents, but the newest DOJ report, released in December of 2020, indicates that Glenwood administrators were more aware of problems at Glenwood than the public was led to believe. Gov. Kim Reynolds doesn’t appear to be using her power to protect the human and civil rights or even the safety of the people who live at Glenwood and Woodward.

Many years ago, following exposure of similar abuses and deaths, the Des Moines Register ran an editorial titled “In the Woodward World.” It was clear then, as it is now, that large, isolated state institutions are indeed seen as a different world where people who are not like you and me are often neglected, forgotten, and subjected to experiments without informed consent.

I have great respect for parents and other family members who depend on these institutions in the absence of quality services and supports closer to home. I share their frustration that the Olmstead decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999, requiring states to offer the least restrictive settings possible for people with disabilities, has not resulted in community programs that can handle severe disabilities and challenging behaviors.

Iowa has consistently been behind the curve in developing community programs. We were one of the last states to apply for and receive a Medicaid waiver for home and community-based services, finally allowing money for long-term institutional care to be used for services in community settings. At last count, fourteen states have closed their state-operated institutions and redirected their funding to local programs. Only with last year’s arrival of Kelly Garcia as head of Iowa’s Department of Human Services has the idea of closure been broached by a top official.

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Meanwhile, Garcia is faced with a mountain of problems resulting from former Gov. Terry Branstad’s unilateral decision in 2015 to privatize Medicaid. Privatization has not saved money nor improved care for people with disabilities. Reynolds continues to support that decision.

Iowa’s institutions no longer identify residents by numbers on gravestones. “Idiots, imbeciles, morons, and the feebleminded” are no longer official classifications. Community services and supports continue to improve. However, oversight of how we treat those who are incarcerated with “others of their own kind” never seems to be a priority for our state leaders until the federal government takes notice.

I hope that the latest scandals are not swept under the rug, like so many others over the years, and that we develop alternatives to our institutions. Iowan’s most vulnerable citizens and their families deserve better.

David Leshtz lives in Iowa City. He served as chair of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission from 2002-2005.

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