504930_1Three teenage girls were left in solitary confinement at the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo for months at a time according to an article published by the Des Moines Register yesterday.  An internal Iowa Department of Human Services report said that hundreds of youth had been held in the isolation cells in 2011 and 2012.  The Register reported that one girl in her mid-teens was placed in an isolation cell (which is a small concrete room with a steel door – similar to what you’d find in a county juvenile detention center) for almost one year.  It’s reported that this girl almost ate all of her meals in the cell and was allowed out of the cell only one hour a day for hygiene and exercise.

The Register reported that when Nathan Kirstien and Beth Bydberg of Disability Rights Iowa took a tour by the former Superintendent, Deb Hanus, they found three girls living in the cells with one being able to attend school during the day and the other two not, and those two spent 23 hours per day in the cells.  All three girls were not adjudicated delinquents (the equivalent of being convicted of a crime) so they were not sentenced to the Iowa Juvenile Home as the result of an adjudication hearing in juvenile court.  They were all considered Child in Need of Assistance (CINA) due to documented abuse and neglect that had occurred in their homes and have been removed from their homes by the Court.

In other words, they did nothing wrong to warrant being in the system, but were victims of abuse.

Deborah Hanus has since retired and the treatment director at the time resigned.  Mark Day, who also oversees the Iowa State Training School for Boys is currently also the interim superintendent at the home.  Iowa Governor Terry Branstad during this morning’s press conference was not aware of the practice until just recently.  “The person in charge of the juvenile home has been replaced.  The practice has been changed,” he said.

Michael Bousselot, who is the liaison for the Governor to the Iowa Department of Human Services said, “What I think is important is that Chuck (Palmer – the DHS Director) has worked with leadership at the Iowa Juvenile Home to recognize that there was a practice that was going on that was inappropriate.  They identified that practice.  They changed the leadership at that facility.  They’ve also changed the practices and standards of care.  They moved forward with a solution that is implementing a high-level of care to the troubled youth that are served at that home, and Chuck and DHS are committed to a high-level of care for the youth and individuals that are under their care.”

Governor Branstad added, “We are the leaders of continuous improvement.  We try every day to provide the best services that we can in the most effective and economically inefficient way that we can.  We want to make sure that every person is treated with respect and dignity.”

There is some confusion regarding the numbers of youth who have actually been put in isolation at the Iowa Juvenile Home.  One thing to bear in mind is that that number could include a youth being put in there for a hour or two up to days as was reported.

Also as someone who has served in youth ministry for 20 years and worked specifically with juvenile offenders and high-risk youth for 13+ years I’m appalled to hear how these youth were treated while in isolation.  Having worked directly in a juvenile detention center at the county level I can tell you that youth going through the adjudication process were typically only in their cells overnight or during shift changes with the doors locked.  Very rarely were youth placed in their cells for longer periods of time, and never for the length of time suggested in this article.  Use of the rooms in that manner were at times necessary for the safety of the youth, other residents and staff.  When I took a tour of the Iowa Juvenile Home almost two-and-a-half years ago there were no youth in the isolation area.  I also was not surprised by their presence or use however.

I do believe they shouldn’t be used as a punitive measure, especially long-term and especially with youth who have been victimized themselves.

In fact consider that your typical adult convict in prison receives better treatment than this and most of the youth at the Iowa Juvenile Home are kids who are considered CINA, not adjudicated delinquents.  Most youth are placed there because of behavior that occurred in other placements or foster homes that make other placements impractical.  Mark Day in an interview with The Des Moines Register said that 70-80% of the youth exhibit aggressive behavior in other placements.  They are the last stop for girls in Iowa and the second-to-last stop for boys (the State Training School for Boys in Eldora, IA is the last stop for young men).  It needs to be pointed out that almost  of these youth are not originally in the system because of something they did.

They deserved to be treated better, and I’m glad to hear the Department of Human Services have made the changes necessary.

This story brings up issues that should be addressed.  What more can be done to address prevention?  This isn’t an issue that can be resolved by government however.  How can the community address this problem?  What types of community inventions can be done at the first signs of problems?  Are enough state resources being invested in the juvenile justice system?  I’d say no.  I don’t want to grow the state budget, but I also see this as a legitimate function of the state.  I also know that there is a high-turnover rate in many juvenile placements.  In my opinion these people simply are not being paid enough.  Also we have a higher instance of youth with mental illnesses who are being ordered to placements such as these that are not equipped to handle the types of behaviors these youth exhibit.

Before I hear another education reform advocate more spending for Iowa’s public schools they need to be reminded that over 60% of state spending already goes to education.  There are other priorities as well.  Like I said before most of the answers lie in the community with prevention and initial intervention of youth who are victimized or who commit crime.  After that though we need to make sure the juvenile justice system has the resources it need to adequately care for the children and youth that it serves.

Photo credit: John Speer – The Toledo Chronicle

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