TAMA | The governor has had his say. Now, it’s their turn.
Iowa Juvenile Home employees and the surrounding community were shocked when Republican Gov. Terry Branstad and Iowa Department of Human Services announced on Dec. 9 that the facility would close in a month. But now they’re ready to fight back.
IJH employee Todd Sprague is spearheading an informational meeting for the community at 7 p.m. on Thursday at South Tama County High School Gymnasium, 1715 Harding St., in Tama.
He said the meeting is open to the public, but will not necessarily be an open forum for everyone to air their concerns.
The meeting is meant to serve multiple purposes. It will include comments from former IJH residents about the impact the facility has on troubled youths, as well as provide guidance on how to lobby the state to try to keep open the facility slated for closure by Jan. 16.
“The purpose of the meeting is to highlight the strength and the quality of the Iowa Juvenile Home over time,” said Yvonne Mallory, a retired educator from the facility. “The institution has been terribly maligned, and we seek to have the rest of the story, give support to the children who are presently there, to the young adults who are now out in the world, and to the staff.”
One of those women who plans to speak is Tamara Fish. Fish, 40, lives in the Waterloo area and will travel to Tama to talk about how the facility changed her life.
Fish first went to IJH in 1987 and said she found her purpose in the world by the time she left in 1990.
“I wouldn't be who I am today without them, and I wouldn't have been able to raise my children as well as I have without learning all that I learned while I was there,” Fish said in an email.
Fish said it’s a bad decision to close the juvenile home. She now has nine children and has visited with younger girls who were pregnant when they came to IJH. After years of raising her children, Fish said she is currently studying to be a midwife.
“I was on a very slippery slope, spinning out of control before IJH,” Fish said. “They saved me and guided me.”
Sprague, who has worked at IJH for eight years, said the meeting is meant to provide a positive message and push back against the negative publicity that has come out about the facility, which currently serves 21 girls and employs 93 people in the area.
Paula Rohach, whose husband and friends work at IJH, said she hopes to address some of the “fabricated” comments about how children are abused at the facility and locked in isolation cells.
Almost as importantly, though, she wants to be able to publicly voice the questions that the juvenile home’s supporters have put to the governor.
“Here it is Christmas, and it’s like the rug being pulled out from under you,” Rohach said.
Mallory, who retired after nearly 10 years of service in 2010, agreed that the picture presented to the public has not been accurate; she said youths were not locked up alone, but rather given places to sleep where they felt safe at night. She said helping the youths is a community effort.
“This is about the youth. It comes down to that,” Sprague said. “Everybody’s said that. I couldn’t agree more. It’s 100 percent about the kids. Moving them again is not best for them.”
Rohach compared the closure of IJH to shuttering a hospital when one person had the wrong limb removed or closing a school down when one teacher is accused of abuse. She said instead of closing the entire facility, the problems should be rooted out but the facility should continue to provide its services.
Rohach's questions are also being asked by the area’s lawmakers, who are expected to attend Thursday’s meeting.
Iowa Rep. Dean Fisher, R-Garwin, said he’s less focused on talking about next steps and more ready to discuss how the mission of IJH has been adopted by the community.
“The entire community was involved in helping take care of these kids,” Fisher said.
State Sen. Steve Sodders, D-State Center, said he will support the community as it learns more about the impending closure of the facility, and will also alert residents about ways of lobbying the state to keep the facility open.
Both lawmakers said they would make an effort on behalf of the community when the 2014 session gets underway Jan. 13.
Rohach and Sprague have already gotten into action by launching a Facebook group page called “Keep IJH open.” It has more than 8,600 members after being created last week.
Another supporter has also created a change.org petition to keep open the juvenile facility. That online effort has received 610 signatures.