DES MOINES | Two months after announcing his decision to close the Iowa Juvenile Home at Toledo, Department of Human Services Director Chuck Palmer said the state has a need for a "secure beds” facility for delinquent girls.
Palmer and other DHS personnel were grilled by the Senate Human Resources Committee Monday in an effort to understand the decision to close the facility that had 21 residents and 93 staff members when it was closed in mid-January.
“We do need those beds,” Palmer told the committee.
Under sometimes hostile questioning, Palmer accepted responsibility for conditions at the Iowa Juvenile Home and Girls Training School, but said he was not aware of the scale of the problems there until the independent, nonprofit Disability Rights Iowa reported on what it called "excessive use of restraint and seclusion” on the teenaged girls and boys at the facilities.
"I was very shocked and very angry” that reports of the abuses there had not "risen to my level of awareness,” Palmer said.
Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, called that a "failure of leadership.”
"At end of the day, it comes down to who’s in charge,” he said.
"I did believe that we were making progress,” Palmer said. "I was under the full hope and belief that we were on a 'fix-it’ course, if you will.”
In time, however, it became clear there was a need for new leadership in Toledo, he said.
Going forward, Palmer said, among the issues that will be a part of his recommendation will be the number of beds needed. The number that has been "nonscientifically” arrived at is 20 beds, he said.
Also to be decided is what services, such as education and counseling, are needed, and whether they should be provided at a single location -- possibly Toledo -- or at locations around the state, Palmer said.
Jane Hudson of Disability Rights Iowa told the committee that the closure of the home and the attention that has brought presents a "golden opportunity for reform, a transition period for the girls as well as the state.”
Legislation introduced by lawmakers last week included many "positives,” Hudson said. She was referring to a bipartisan plan to establish Iowa’s first statewide assessment program for boys and girls. That would include a "three strikes and you’re in” provision requiring all troubled children who have failed three previous placements to undergo an in-depth, on-site assessment at the Iowa Juvenile Home.
That bill included many of her group’s recommendations, such as a school run by educators, requiring quarterly meetings between girls and their guardian ad litems, plans for the girls once the reach age 18 and follow-up assistance until they are 21.
It won’t be easy, cautioned Mark Day, who served as interim superintendent at Iowa Juvenile Home.
"We most assuredly need a state training school,” Day said. "But it’s going to take a cumulative task force, think tank, an aggregate of information to look at the global state picture. Not just the superintendent who worked there for 11 months.”
That brings the department and Legislature to the question of whether that should be a public facility or a something that is funded by the public, Palmer said.
His spokeswoman said Palmer plans to make his recommendation to the Legislature next month.