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DES MOINES | State officials issued layoff notices Monday to 93 employees at the Iowa Juvenile Home and Girls State Training School effective Jan. 16 and announced plans to find alternative placements for the 21 youth currently served at the Toledo facility.

Amy Lorentzen McCoy, spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS), declined to comment whether the Toledo home was closing, saying the focus currently is on the best interest of the minors being served at the state-run home.

However, legislative Democrats slammed Monday’s announcement as a "hasty, unilateral" decision by the governor to halt operations and "privatize” state jobs.

"Our worst fears have been realized,” said Sen. Steve Sodders, D-State Center. "Gov. Branstad has done exactly what we asked him not to do. Closing the Iowa Juvenile Home and the State Training School for Girls at Toledo is not in the best interests of the children, the staff, and the Toledo community.”

DHS Director Charles M. Palmer said the decision was based on recommendations from the Iowa Juvenile Home Protection Task Force, which was appointed by Gov. Terry Branstad in August to define the mission of the home and explore other options for care. Palmer was a member of that task force.

“This was a difficult decision. After a thorough examination of the task force recommendations, we believe finding appropriate alternative placements is in the best interest of the youth,” Palmer said in a statement. “Serving these children in licensed and/or accredited settings was an important goal set by the governor and his task force, and we are moving quickly to ensure it is achieved.”

Palmer said the task force, in its report, noted that the mixed population of youth served at Toledo -- delinquent girls, and boys and girls who are under Children In Need of Assistance (CINA) designations -- made it difficult to achieve licensure and/or accreditation of the facility and its services and programs.

In October, the five-member task force appointed by Branstad offered 10 proposed changes at the Toledo home that included making it a girls-only facility subject to third-party oversight with revamped cottages that address residents’ needs while closing current “control” and “seclusion” rooms that have drawn controversy.

Last month, Branstad said his administration was proceeding with changes suggested by a task force to downsize and repurpose the Iowa Juvenile Home as a girls-only facility in Toledo.

"I am gravely disappointed that Gov. Branstad is closing the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo,” House Democratic Leader Mark Smith of Marshalltown said in a statement.

“While changes are necessary at the facility, the task force did not recommend closing the facility nor did it recommend sending young girls to facilities out of state far away from family,” Smith said. “The governor should continue to enact the reforms of the task force at the Juvenile Home and wait for the Legislature to convene to decide on a future course of action for the Juvenile Home.”

According to a DHS news release, the department determined that other state facilities and community-based, private providers can suit the treatment needs for both CINA and delinquent girls. This will be done in settings which can receive matching federal funds to assist in providing services, according to the DHS statement.

The governor’s office issued a statement Monday afternoon backing the DHS action, saying alternative placements in licensed or accredited settings would better serve the education and care needs of the vulnerable young Iowans served by the Iowa Juvenile Home.

“Gov. Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds first priority has always been the health, safety and education of the children at the Iowa Juvenile Home and State Training School for Girls,” according to a statement issued by Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht.

“Gov. Branstad and Lt. Gov. Reynolds support the Department of Human Services moving forward in the best interest of the children living at the Iowa Juvenile Home and fully implementing the Iowa Juvenile Home Protection Task Force recommendations. Children should not face the stigma of a ‘placement of last resort,’” according to the statement.

Danny Homan, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 61, said Monday’s decision by the Branstad administration was “the result of secretive, closed government” that ran counter to the governor’s pledge for openness and transparency.

"We are shocked to hear the governor’s office has taken this course of action,” Homan said in a statement. “Many groups have been working together to solve the issues at the Iowa Juvenile Home. Not only is this a sad day for the workers, but it is a sad day for the Iowa’s troubled youth displaced because of the governor's actions.”

Homan said employees at the Iowa Juvenile Home have and continue to be willing partners in addressing the failures of management policies at the Toledo facility.

While DHS officials declined to directly say whether the Toledo facility is closing, Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, a candidate for governor in 2014, issued a statement criticizing Monday’s action and pledging to work with other legislators to reverse the decision.

“I’m very disappointed and angry at the governor’s decision to close the Iowa Juvenile Home and privatize more than 100 good state jobs for human services professionals who oversee children for whom the state of Iowa has responsibility and guardianship,” Hatch said in his statement. “What a blow this will be for the community.”

At full capacity, the Iowa Juvenile Home could serve 57 youth ages 12 to 18 by employing a staff of 114 using $10.5 million in state general funds in the current fiscal year.

According to the DHS statement, many of the delinquent girls -- with approval from the courts – likely will be served in a high level of care at the state’s psychiatric medical institutes for children. A handful of others will find treatment through community-based providers.

“We will work with our state facilities and community-based providers who can offer a variety of services and supports which would not be available on the Toledo campus if it were serving only a very small number of delinquent girls,” Palmer said.

Joint treatment planning teams have been formed to evaluate the mental health and behavioral needs of each youth, and ensure the most appropriate placement for their individual needs, he added.

Court approval must be obtained to move any child to a new level of care, and the majority of youth will be served within Iowa, according to the DHS statement. An out-of-state placement could be appropriate in a small number of cases, the department added.

“While the Iowa Juvenile Home staff worked to address the serious mental and behavioral health needs of these youth, we believe that these children will be served most successfully through court-approved alternative placements,” Palmer said.

For employees receiving layoff notices, the department said the state’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) will be available to staff, and officials will work with them to pursue other job opportunities.

DHS social workers, juvenile court officers and licensing and accreditation agencies are responsible with ensuring that the youth continue to receive the services they need at their new placements.

“We will work with state facilities and community-based providers to ensure each youth is given the safe, quality care they deserve within licensed and/or accredited settings,” Palmer said.

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Statehouse reporter for The Courier

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