WATERLOO | Iowa Juvenile Home staff and supporters have not given up hope on keeping open the troubled facility, despite the fact that it’s scheduled to close in a week.
The advocates, who’ve dubbed themselves the Save Our Home committee, are working every possible angle to keep the place operating rather than accepting that it may be too late.
“We haven’t thrown in the towel yet,” Bill Skow, a board member for the nonprofit Iowa Juvenile Home Foundation said in a meeting with Courier editors Tuesday.
He was one of a group of eight advocates who talked about the positive aspects of the girls’ facility and discussed their preferred course of action.
What the advocates need most right now is time.
After Gov. Terry Branstad announced the impending closure Dec. 9, all but three of the young women living at IJH have been transferred to other private facilities.
The group believes Branstad and Iowa Department of Human Services Director Chuck Palmer decided to close the facility in short order, and before the legislative session, to prevent an organized response.
Four state lawmakers and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 61 President Danny Homan filed a lawsuit last week hoping to prevent the Toledo facility from closing and to obtain an injunction to provide time for a more ample public hearing.
The injunction has yet to be granted, but the advocate committee has been reaching out to state lawmakers in an attempt to keep the facility open. It has been funded for the current and next fiscal year.
Misty Lucas, 34, of Waterloo, a former juvenile home resident, said the facility served her well and has improved since she stayed there from 1995 to 1997. She said the deck was stacked against the staff when they came under investigation from Disability Rights Iowa and later a governor's task force.
“The kids that are at most risk in this state are the ones that are getting the shaft,” Lucas said. “It’s a travesty that they’re closing a place we need.”
Other advocates said they felt “bushwhacked” and “blindsided” by the announced closing. Several said that a few weeks earlier they were expecting a potential downsizing but were explicitly told the facility wouldn’t be closed.
Skow, like the other advocates, also believes there was a concerted effort behind the scenes to encourage the disparity between the number of staff at the Toledo facility and the number of youths staying there.
At the time the governor announced the closure, there were 21 young women there and 93 staff members who provided education, medical and psychiatric care, operating the facility 24 hours a day.
The facility as of last year was housing an average of about 50 girls.
While they disputed the description put in the reports, the staff acknowledged that they used techniques like the isolation room. Todd Sprague, a youth services worker, said there’s a steep learning curve to working at the home, but many people have more than twice his eight years of experience there.
“I went to college, and I was not prepared for the job,” Sprague said, adding that understanding how to best help the youths comes only from experience.
While Sprague said the home is definitely a place of last resort, the young women don’t view that as a bad thing. Instead, they learn to see it as a place that keeps them no matter what, which helps them to turn a new leaf.
He said most young women who come there have been placed in six to eight locations before coming to the Iowa Juvenile Home. He said the average age range is 13 to 15, and they come with backgrounds of abuse and often aggression or assault histories.
Sprague said girls end up in isolation if they are deemed dangerous to peers, staff or themselves. But he said new rules put in place require that residents in the room, which is free of objects that could present a risk, are seen at least every 15 minutes.
Nancy Purk, a nurse at IJH for the past 27 years, said the girls will continue to get psychiatric care and other needs taken care of if they are placed there.
In the most extreme case, she said a young woman was regularly placed there for 11 months because she was known to ingest everything from lip balm to 28 inches of fabric and pierce her body with what was around her.
“It was always a constant battle to keep her safe,” Purk said.
Brian Dietrich, a youth services technician with 8 1/2 years experience, also said those 11 months still gave the young woman an opportunity to watch television and spend supervised time outside, though not with her peers.
The advocates believe they haven’t gotten a chance to adequately respond to allegations. They agree that improvements may need to be made -- Purk said mental health treatment and IJH’s role have been constantly evolving -- but they said they have never been asked to do anything they’d deem inappropriate.
The governor’s task force reported back its findings in October. While it recommended improvements, it did not encourage closing the facility.
Purk said she’s already heard problems arising from the girls being shuffled. She said one has reverted to habits of harming herself because she wasn’t properly transitioned and another had been touched inappropriately.
Lucas believes it comes down to the state trying to save a few dollars at the expense of at-risk kids. Former Rep. Dave Nagle of Cedar Falls, an adviser to the advocates, said the move could help the state access federal Medicaid dollars rather than paying for the youths out of the state budget.
But Nagle pointed to Iowa Code that states the juvenile home must be maintained and the law that passed last year funds the facility for the next two years.
Nagle also worries that if the Toledo facility is allowed to be shuttered, it will lead to the closing of the state’s other youth training facility in Eldora.