Independent Oversight Sought at Toledo Youth Home

By Rod Boshart, Reporter

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By Kayleigh Milas

DES MOINES – State lawmakers said Tuesday they were encouraged by reports that problems at the Iowa Juvenile Home have diminished, but they wanted more independent oversight and improvements in staffing, training and safety measures at the state-run facility in Toledo.

Jane Hudson, executive director of Disability Rights Iowa, a federally funded advocacy group that has been investigating treatment of children at the home, said conditions are improving on “a really good trajectory” in the glare of increased public scrutiny over use of restraints and isolation cells.

Hudson said the home’s staff has stopped using long-term isolation rooms and has reduced the use of restraint and seclusion, but she said the home still has more to do to improve the quality of care and her non-profit organization has requested an assessment by an independent group next month.

Charles Palmer, director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, acknowledged that the state-run facility had not been providing a top-notch level of care, but he said the staff – aided by a recent executive order from Gov. Terry Branstad -- is working hard to “make the changes that need to be made.”

Palmer also was open to outside oversight, but he wanted to see the recommendations from a Branstad-appointed task force that holds its first meeting Wednesday regarding what might be an appropriate third-party overseer. The task force is slated to issue its findings by Oct. 15.

Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, leader of the Senate Oversight Committee, said she did not believe the state has appropriate checks and balances or level of oversight in place that is needed at the Toledo home. She said she toured the facility last month and was “shocked” by “the number of issues going on.”

“They’re making a lot of great changes. I still think there are a lot of changes that we just need to continue to make to ensure that we’re taking better care of our kids up there,” she said.

“Clearly they’re working hard to make some changes. I just don’t think we can rely solely on one department,” Petersen added. “We have the fox guarding the hen house. We are wanting to make sure that the people providing the oversight and doing the investigation aren’t the same people who are running the facility.”

Mark Day, the Toledo home’s interim superintendent, concurred that recent changes ordered at the facility are producing better outcomes, but he worried that “fragile” kids are being put at risk in the turmoil of changes that ultimately are for the long-term good of the residents and the learning environment.

“Right now is very unsettling,” Day said of the situation for about four dozen children with troubled backgrounds who reside at the facility. “They read the papers, they know what the circumstances are and this is where they live,” he told members of the Senate Oversight Committee Tuesday.

The juvenile home provides housing, education and treatment for young people aged 12-18 with behavior problems who are victims of past neglect and abuse. The facility operates on a $10.3 million budget that staffs 114 full-time positions, but Day said the home currently is short about 10 people – including several key administrators – and functioning under “an intake slow down.”

Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, said he was concerned about staffing and training shortages at the facility and comments Day made about the conditions of cottages that he said have passed inspections but don’t meet his safety criteria.

“That’s a red flag,” said McCoy, co-chair of the House-Senate transportation, infrastructure and capitals budget subcommittee. He said he planned to ask state Department of Administrative Services’ officials to order a follow-up health and safety inspection at the Toledo facility and have his subcommittee look into the issue next session.

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