Psychiatric experts decry use of restraints at boys school

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DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Two psychiatric experts testifying in a lawsuit against the Iowa Human Services Department said the use of isolation and restraints at the state school for delinquent boys can cause them long-lasting psychological harm.

Psychologist Andrea Weisman testified in U.S. District Court in Des Moines that a Velcro and leather contraption called "the wrap" used to restrain boys at the State Training School for Boys in Eldora is "akin to a torture device."

But state officials testified that the measures are used only as last resorts to protect the safety of students and staff members when boys become agitated and violent.

The class-action lawsuit filed in November 2017 by two advocacy groups says the school fails to provide adequate mental health care to the boys. Judge Stephanie Rose is overseeing the nonjury trial and will decide whether changes should be ordered. The plaintiffs aren't seeking monetary damages.

The Des Moines Register reported that Weisman and psychologist Stuart Grassian testified that many states have stopped using solitary confinement and restraints at facilities for troubled teens, making the facilities safer because the students are less agitated.

Many of the delinquent teens have histories of mental illness caused by childhood abuse and neglect, Weisman and Grassian said. Isolation and restraint can retrigger the damage from previous traumas, making the boys lose control, the two testified.

The school administrators "need to understand that kids may not just be misbehaving — they may be sick," Weisman said.

Administrators testified that the facility tries to minimize the use of restraints and isolation.

Human Services Department Director called the Eldora facility school "the placement of last resort" for boys who have committed serious crimes and have failed to succeed at less-restrictive programs.

The school superintendent since 2008, Mark Day, testified Thursday that he and his staff strive to make the facility feel more like a campus than a prison.

He grew emotional when talking about the Christmas breakfast he and his family serve boys unable to go home for the holiday.

"It's hard to be vilified when you know what's really going on," Day told Rose.