DES MOINES | Lawmakers upset over the closing of the Iowa Juvenile Home are seeking to establish a new state-run effort to help troubled youths, especially girls, with programs operated through the existing Toledo facility.
Legislation proposed in both the Senate and House proposes steps to repair gaps in the care of delinquent juveniles and children in need of assistance.
Proponents say the gaps were created by the abrupt closure of the Toledo home by Branstad administration officials earlier this month.
“Court officers and social workers who provide child welfare services across the state tell us Iowa needs a facility for the most difficult cases. We have one for boys, and right now we don’t have one for girls,” House Democratic Leader Mark Smith of Marshalltown said Thursday. “That’s unfair, unconstitutional and a terribly shortsighted way to treat young women who need our help.”
Backers say the state needs a more effective and accountable approach to help boys and girls who need serious help.
“I believe that every serious legislator, Republicans and Democrats alike, believed this is the time to make major reforms,” said Sen. Steve Sodders, D-State Center, who is sponsoring legislation in the Senate. “A restructured, refocused, accredited Iowa Juvenile Home is a key part of the solution, but only one part among several.”
Sodders, Smith and Sen. Jack Hatch, a 2014 gubernatorial candidate who chairs the House-Senate budget panel that oversees youth services, are among four lawmakers and a union official who brought a lawsuit seeking to block Gov. Terry Branstad’s administration from closing the Toledo facility.
Backers hope to establish Iowa’s first statewide assessment program for boys and girls that would include a “three strikes and you’re in” provision. Troubled children who have failed in three previous placements would undergo in-depth assessments at the Iowa Juvenile Home.
Another component would create a support plan for youths placed at the new Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo and the State Training School in Eldora as they make the transition into young adulthood.
Proponents did not have a cost estimate for the new approach. It would include accredited education services at the Toledo home provided by the South Tama school district, the local area education agency or another provider.
Earlier this month state officials issued layoff notices to 93 employees at the Toledo home and announced plans to find alternative placements for the youths, ages 12 to 18, served at the facility.
The decision followed allegations that youths spent days, weeks or even months in isolation cells and were receiving substandard educational services.
“Gov. Branstad’s utmost concern is the health, education and safety of the children who resided at the Iowa Juvenile Home,” said Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers. “The governor believes the children can be best served, treated and receive the education they deserve through alternative placement.”
However, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said there are indications that some former residents “have been moved to placements that two months ago were deemed to be inappropriate. We’re very concerned about what has happened to these kids.”
Democrats said they have not discussed the plan with the Republican governor but hoped he would be supportive if a bipartisan measure is able to make it to his desk this session.
House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said he has not discussed the proposal but expected “a robust discussion” in the House-Senate human services budget subcommittee.
“We’re going to make sure that we meet our obligations and responsibilities to the kids that receive those services, and we’re happy to look at any proposal,” Paulsen said.