As court officials debate where to put a 16-year-old Johnson County girl who slashed a treatment center employee, Iowa’s new Department of Human Services director says a training school for girl delinquents like her will not be built in the state.
There are not enough delinquent girls to fill even a 12-bed facility recommended by a task force, said DHS director Jerry Foxhoven.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s not just a cost issue but also quality of education for these girls” — noting that the very few girls destined for such a facility would likely be spread out over three or four grade levels.
“It wouldn’t be fair to them or cost-effective for the state,” he said.
The issue of what do with girl offenders arose last week when a 6th Judicial Associate District Court judge ordered juvenile court officers to find a secure, restrictive facility — like a training school — to place the 16-year-old, who was convicted in juvenile court of slicing the neck of a Four Oaks employee.
Iowa no longer has a state facility for girl delinquents. The Iowa Juvenile Home and State Training School for Girls in Toledo was closed in 2014 following accusations of unlawful restraining methods and of keeping girls in long-term isolation.
Then-Gov. Terry Branstad appointed a committee to study the facility before deciding to close it. As a result. the 10 girls living there were transferred to out-of-state facilities, detention centers or to adult court.
Foxhoven said the violent Johnson County girl is likely to be placed in an out-of-state facility if the judge finds she needs to be in a training school or group care setting.
Foxhoven acknowledged that the Johnson County girl and any others like her requiring a state training school are under the guardianship of his department. But, he said, juvenile court officers are more familiar with the girls and better able to investigate possible placement for them.
The reality is that there’s no place in Iowa for girls ordered to a locked, training school institution. And, Foxhoven said, “We can’t build it for one girl.”
A review hearing for the Johnson County girl is set for Wednesday. Juvenile court officers will update the judge at that time on their progress of finding a placement for the girl in or out of state.
Task force seeks equitable services
The Iowa Girls’ Justice Initiative report, compiled by a 28-member group spearheaded by the Iowa Task Force for Young Women, issued a 34-page report in February, saying the state should have equitable services for “deep-end girls — serious, violent and chronic offenders.”
It recommended a secure or staff-secure facility for about 12 girls. The report suggested a residential setting similar to the enhanced residential treatment facilities for boys provided by public treatment centers or private agencies that contract with the state.
Foxhoven said it’s a different situation at the State Training School for Boys in Eldora. The number of delinquent boys there — 94, as of Friday — is much larger.
But if there weren’t enough boys at the Eldora facility, it, too, would be closed, he added.
As of Thursday, no Iowa girls are placed in out-of-state training schools or in group care settings, said Amy McCoy, DHS spokeswoman.
DHS will continue to add community-based services, as it has done after the girls’ school closed, Foxhoven said.
Lawsuit asserts out-of-state abuses
Two Iowa girls who had been placed at the Copper Lake School in Irma, Wisconsin, assert in a federal lawsuit they were physically abused and held in long-term isolation there in 2015.
DHS contracted with the Wisconsin facility to take the delinquent girls after the Toledo facility closed in 2014.
In the suit, one of the girls, 16 at the time, said she tried to commit suicide with her nightgown while in isolation for 17 days. She was found unresponsive and, after being revived, was sent back to her cell and sentenced to more isolation.
The girl said in the lawsuit she repeatedly hurt herself by putting her head under a metal cot frame, and that a staff supervisor stood on the cot to increase pressure.
Foxhoven wouldn’t comment on the pending suit, except to say that if the allegations are true, he hopes the ones responsible will be “held accountable.”
“It can happen in-state, too — look at what happened at Toledo,” Foxhoven added.
Alternate study calls for community care
An alternative report also was filed in February after the Girls’ Justice Initiative report was issued. The alternative report opposes building a training school or secure facility for girls.
The authors were Foxhoven, before he was appointed DHS director in June; Jim Chesnik, also with DHS; Nathan Kirstein, staff attorney for Disability Rights of Iowa; and Brett Pattison, director of the Joan and Lyle Middleton Center for Children’s Rights at Drake Law School.
They instead recommended moving away from locked facilities for juveniles, as many states are doing, and using community-based services to alter behavior, educate and address mental health needs.
Community-based services are far less expensive and more effective, Kirstein said last week.
During the first decade that the Iowa Juvenile Home and girls school operated, the bed count went from 89 to 51, more than a 40 percent reduction, but the costs during that time went up 37 percent, according to the report.
The current cost of locked facilities in Iowa — juvenile detention and the training school for boys — is more than $300 per day, the report said.
“What is magic about locked doors?” Kirstein asked. “How does that stop assaults? There are assaults at the boys training school.”
Disability Rights Iowa, a nonprofit law center that advocates for the rights of Iowans with disabilities and mental illness, uncovered the Toledo home’s placement of girls in long-term isolation cells that led to its closure.
Disability Rights Iowa also issued a report last week after a yearlong study of the boys school, citing the Eldora school isn’t providing evidence-based mental health services, besides medication management, and staff is relying too much on the use of restraint and seclusion. The report also says independent oversight is also needed.
Advocate seeks stability, equity
Jennifer Tibbetts, chair of the Iowa Task Force for Young Women, which gave rise to the report calling for a small facility for girls, said “secure” doesn’t necessarily mean locks or a fence.
These girls need secure residential placement whether that means a locked facility or one with staff trained to handle issues unique to such girls, she said.
The girls deserve a stable environment and equitable services for rehabilitation, Tibbetts said, which the state now only provides to boys.
“I don’t want any of these girls to think there’s no hope for them because there is,” Tibbetts said. “With the right level of services to support these girls, they can become better adults and have better lives.”
Tibbetts said it’s also an expense to the state when these girls are placed outside of Iowa.
She and other group members hope to start talking to legislators about their report to gain support for a facility.