DES MOINES — Gov. Kim Reynolds said Tuesday her human services director would look into claims by an advocacy group critical of methods used to restrain or calm unruly boys housed at a state training school, but she noted the facility repeatedly has passed the scrutiny of accrediting agencies and independent assessors.
“I have a lot of confidence” in DHS Director Jerry Foxhoven, Reynolds told reporters when asked to comment on a report issued by the nonprofit group, Disability Rights Iowa. The report contended that staff at the Boys State Training School has been overusing seclusion rooms and restraints in dealing with troubled youth who are placed at the Eldora facility by juvenile court judges.
“He is the right person to be dealing with this,” Reynolds added. “He’s going to continue to work with the superintendent there and with all of the involved parties to make sure that we’re doing the right thing.”
Foxhoven, a longtime leader in child protection and family law who oversaw a study of a state juvenile home in Toledo that eventually was closed, took the reins of the state’s human services agency in June. Reynolds said she expects Foxhoven will “assess the situation” at the Eldora school in light of the group's report “and then we’ll move forward once he comes back to us with what his findings are.”
In its report issued Monday, officials with Disability Rights Iowa claimed teens with mental illnesses are placed in isolation or restrained with “wraps” to control unruly behavior. The group threatened to bring a federal lawsuit unless significant changes are made at the facility to end the “over-reliance” on restraints and seclusion, to shore up gaps in services and to ensure safe and appropriate evidence-based treatment.
On Tuesday, Reynolds and DHS spokeswoman Amy McCoy responded by noting that the Eldora school is a correctional campus where youth with the most serious criminal offenses are placed by the juvenile court after failing to function in group settings that were used for comparison purposes in the Disability Rights report.
“The State Training School provides supervision and support to keep more than 250 youth each year safe from themselves and others, protect the community, keep staff safe, and rehabilitate youth to reduce the likelihood of re-offense,” McCoy said.
She added that the Eldora school was independently accredited by the American Correctional Association and the Iowa Department of Education for academic standards; met or exceeded all Prison Rape Elimination Act requirements; and reports all suspected incidents of abuse to the Iowa Department of Inspection and Appeals for review and follow-up action.
In its report, Disability Rights Iowa, a nonprofit law center authorized by Congress to protect and advocate for the rights of Iowans with disabilities and mental illness, said it has intensively investigated the adequacy of mental health services for youth placed at the Boys State Training School over the past year.
About two-thirds of the roughly 120 youth living at the facility have been diagnosed as having a serious mental illness and are on psychotropic medications. But the advocacy organization contends the school is not providing evidence-based mental health services to residents besides medication management in violation of the statutory mission and the constitutional rights of the residents.
“There is an overreliance on the use of restraint and seclusion, which disproportionately affects African American youth and youth with disabilities,” according to the group's report. “There are no regulations that govern the use of restraint and seclusion and provisions of mental health care and education at the BSTS. This is an anomaly in the juvenile justice system in Iowa.”
The report also noted there is no independent state licensure and oversight of the Eldora facility.
In its recommendation, the group advocated for the transfer of all youth with mental illness to placements where appropriate mental health services can be provided, and it called for the state to provide additional staff training and to implement data collecting and reporting procedures for the reduction of restraint and seclusion along with establishing licensure and oversight by an independent state entity.
“This is one report from one group who would like to see a completely different model because that’s the model they’re committed to,” McCoy said in response to the Disability Rights report.
“Eldora is a very different type of facility than the other facilities that DRI is trying to compare them to in the report. It’s not apples to apples,” McCoy said. “While DRI may not like the model that’s in place at Eldora, this is the model that continues to be supported by legislators, the juvenile court system and our department and we are committed to continuous quality improvement. Overall, we feel like we are doing a very good job for the young men who are at Eldora. We are keeping them safe, we are providing them educational opportunities, vocational opportunities.”