Federal judge says state ‘tortures’ children at Eldora home

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A federal judge issued a strongly worded rebuke to Iowa state officials Tuesday, saying they were “torturing” the youth housed at the Boys State Training School in Eldora.

In a 116-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose held the state liable for violating the constitutional rights of children at the school, which houses troubled youth ordered there by the courts. She also ordered that a monitor be appointed to oversee a broad array of court-ordered comprehensive reforms at the school.

In her decision, the judge said the state-run school’s inadequate mental health care, its misuse of solitary confinement, and its use of what she called a “torture” device — a restraint known as the “wrap,” which holds children immobile — violate the U.S. Constitution.

She wrote that the state’s use of the wrap “shocks the conscience,” adding that she was particularly disturbed by the state’s “deliberate indifference” to the obvious risks the wrap poses to children.

“By using the wrap in this manner, the school tortures its students,” the judge wrote. “The students at the school are almost entirely children. Some of these children are dangerous; some of them are not. But all deserve our protection. These children’s care was entrusted to the school by well-meaning judges across the State of Iowa. To learn that the school used the wrap to revictimize already vulnerable, typically mentally ill, children entrusted to their care is disturbing to the court at a level that is nearly indescribable.”

The school is run by the Iowa Department of Human Services, the same state agency that is responsible for responding to allegations of child abuse and neglect. A department spokesman said Monday the agency is reviewing the court’s decision and is consulting with the attorney general as how to proceed.

In her ruling, Rose said state officials “did nothing” to evaluate the safety of the wrap even after being alerted to the risks involved.

“Defendants did not even take steps to ensure the mental health of students exposed to the wrap was evaluated before, while, or shortly after being placed in the wrap,” the judge wrote. “They were indifferent to its obvious and understood risks. The risks of the wrap are obvious — which is inescapable where students are carried to the wrap in tears, have their clothes cut from their bodies, and are left in the wrap naked and alone.”

Rose noted that the state’s experts did not even attempt to offer evidence that the wrap was not harmful to a child’s mental health. She ruled that “in addition to unconstitutionally using isolation as a means of punishment, the school has created unconstitutionally harmful conditions by subjecting students to solitary confinement for unreasonably dangerous periods of time without any mental health oversight.”

The judge singled out former DHS Director Jerry Foxhoven and former DHS administrator Rick Shults, saying they “are not without blame” in the matter.

“The risks of trauma and severe psychological stress should have been self-evident,” she wrote. “In such circumstances, the proper course of action is not to burry one’s head in the sand and proceed.”

While state officials argued they only used isolation and restraints at the home to lessen the risk of harm to students or staff, Judge Rose said “this view ignores overwhelming evidence showing the school frequently punishes or tortures students through these tools for behavior not meeting such conditions.”

She concluded that without a court-ordered injunction, “the unconstitutional conditions at the school will continue into the future.”

She ordered the state to submit to the court, within 45 days, a plan to “remedy the constitutional deficiencies in the school’s mental health treatment programs.”

Disability Rights Iowa and Children’s Rights, the two organizations that initiated the lawsuit in 2017, called the judge’s decision a victory for Iowa children.

“The court has confirmed that Boys State Training School is not providing sufficient mental health care services to children who need them (and is) using solitary confinement and illegal restraints as a means of punishment in violation of the constitution, said Harry Frischer, lead counsel at Children’s Rights. “The school literally has been torturing youth in its care.”

Nathan Kirstein, lead counsel at Disability Rights Iowa, said the decision “vindicates many boys who have suffered mistreatment and lack of treatment at this facility for far too long. A few brave boys, the named plaintiffs, used their voice in the hopes of changing this situation for boys in the future. This decision is the initial step in this process.”

Timothy Farrell, a partner at Ropes & Gray LLP and one of the trial attorneys for the plaintiffs, said he looks forward to “ensuring that Judge Rose’s order is carried out to restore dignity and humanity to the boys committed to the Boys State Training School.”

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Disability Rights Iowa and others have called on the state to publicly share its emergency plan for addressing the issue within Iowa’s juvenile justice and child welfare systems. In a letter to Gov. Kim Reynolds, they urged the adoption of measures to protect youth, including discharging medically vulnerable youth and nonviolent offenders, and dramatically curtailing new admissions to detention facilities.

Clark Kauffman
Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.