DES MOINES — State lawmakers upset over the closing of the Iowa Juvenile Home are seeking to establish a new state-run effort to assess and help troubled youth, especially girls, with treatment and educational programs operated through the existing Toledo facility.
Legislation being offered in both the Senate and House proposes immediate steps to repair gaps in the care of delinquent juveniles or Children In Need of Assistance that proponents say 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 focus needs to be on increasing the effectiveness, stability and quality of Iowa efforts. They also say the state needs to be involved in establishing a new, more effective and accountable statewide 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 Iowa 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 Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo.
Lawmakers hope to create a multi-purpose, residential, accredited treatment center for female juvenile delinquents or female juveniles adjudicated as Children In Need of Assistance at the Toledo campus. Backers also hope to establish Iowa’s first statewide assessment program for boys and girls that would include a “three strikes and you’re in” provision requiring all troubled children who have failed three previous placements to undergo an in-depth, on-site assessment at the Iowa Juvenile Home.
Another component would create a long-term support plan for all youth placed at the new Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo and the State Training School in Eldora that would include support for children as they make the transition into young adulthood.
Proponents did not have a cost estimate for the new approach, which would include accredited education services at the Toledo home to be provided by the local South Tama school district, the local area education agency or another provider approved by the state Department of Education.
Earlier this month, state officials issued layoff notices to 93 employees at the Toledo home and announced plans to find other placements for the youth, ages 12 to 18, served at the facility, saying the action was in the best interest of the youth. The decision followed allegations that youth 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,” Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers said. “The governor believes the children can be best served, treated and receive the education they deserve through alternative placement.”
Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said, however, there are indications that up to half of the former home 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 who discussed details of the proposal to “repair holes in Iowa’s safety net for troubled children” 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.
At a weekly Republican leadership news conference Thursday, House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said he has not discussed the proposal, but he expected there would be “a robust discussion” within 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.