Lawsuit claims Reynolds’ staff, AG’s office approved sexual-arousal experiments at Glenwood

(Creative Commons photo via Pxhere.com)

A new whistleblower lawsuit alleges Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ staff and an assistant attorney general approved of sexual-arousal experiments on the mentally disabled residents of a state-run care facility.

The lawsuit, filed by six former employees of the Glenwood Resource Center, seeks more than $10 million in damages from the state, claiming the wrongful discharge of the plaintiffs contributed to a “drastic increase in patient deaths” at the home.

The plaintiffs in the case allege they were ousted in retaliation for the concerns they expressed about the former Glenwood superintendent’s efforts to alter the treatment plans of the profoundly disabled residents of the western Iowa home and use them as “guinea pigs” in experiments related to sexual arousal.

The lawsuit, filed in Mills County District Court, is based largely on claims made earlier this year in a separate lawsuit filed in federal court. In October, the federal case was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds.

As part of the newly filed lawsuit in state court, the plaintiffs claim for the first time that Reynolds’ office approved the plans for the sexual-arousal research in 2018.

The petition in the case cites Glenwood staff-meeting minutes from 2018, alleging those minutes indicate the experiments were “discussed and approved by the highest levels of Iowa state government.” The lawsuit claims the former director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, Jerry Foxhoven, discussed and approved the research with one of his top administrators at the time, Rick Shults. The two then made plans to present the program to the governor’s office, according to the lawsuit.

“On information and belief, the governor’s office approved defendants’ illicit research programs in 2018,” the plaintiffs’ petition alleges.

Pat Garrett, spokesman for Gov. Reynolds, did not respond to a request for comment on that claim.

The lawsuit also alleges that in April 2018, Glenwood’s then-superintendent, Jerry Rea, wrote that he had “received a commitment from the Iowa special assistant attorney general to begin work” on various psychological research programs, and that this assistant attorney general was “quite excited about the prospects” for work involving “in-vivo assessments of sexual arousal.”

Lynn Hicks, spokesman for the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, initially declined comment but denied the allegation Friday.

The lawsuit also asserts that former Glenwood medical director Mohammad Rehman, who reportedly received a vote of “no confidence” from the Glenwood staff in November 2017, remained on the state payroll until April of this year when he was forced to resign in lieu of being fired.

The plaintiffs in the case are Kelly Brodie, a former interim superintendent of Glenwood; Dr. John Heffron, a physician who worked at Glenwood for close to 10 years; Katherine King, a former treatment program administrator at Glenwood; Dr. Michael Langenfeld, a physician who worked at Glenwood for nine years; Katherine Rall, the facility’s former director of quality management; and Jamie Shaw, a nurse practitioner who worked at Glenwood.

The defendants in the case include the Iowa Department of Human Services, which runs Glenwood; Foxhoven, who resigned as the department’s director in June 2019; Shults, the now-retired former director of DHS’ Division of Mental Health and Disability Services; Rehman, the former medical director at Glenwood; and Rea, the former Glenwood superintendent who was fired in December 2019 after he allegedly initiated plans to turn the home into a research center through medical experimentation.

The state has yet to file a formal response to the lawsuit.

As part of the lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim the problems at Glenwood began in September 2017 when Rea, a child psychologist from Kansas, was hired to run the home. Before coming to Glenwood, Rea was superintendent at the Parsons State Hospital and Training Center in Kansas. He also served as an adjunct assistant research professor at the University of Kansas where he studied sexual behavior and arousal among individuals with intellectual disabilities. In 1998, Rea allegedly received a patent for a device used to measure sexual arousal.

According to the lawsuit, Rea was hired by DHS partly because of his “close personal relationship” with Shults, to whom Rea reported after taking the superintendent’s job.

Using $60,000 in state money, Rea allegedly renovated his personal residence at Glenwood and utilized the services of Glenwood’s maintenance team to assist in the renovation. Then, he allegedly embarked on what he reportedly described as a process of “creative destruction,” cutting costs and attempting to make Glenwood more relevant as a research facility.

According to the lawsuit, Rea and others at DHS “intended to use, and did use, highly vulnerable Glenwood Resource Center patients as the subjects, or guinea pigs, in research experiments” involving sexual arousal. They allegedly did so without first obtaining authorization from the residents, and “were forced to later scramble to get consent on behalf of the patients who had been experimented on, after receiving notice of a new Department of Justice investigation” of Glenwood in 2019.

In an effort to conduct the research, Rea allegedly changed the medications being given to some of the residents, which resulted in some of them experiencing adverse effects, such as seizures. Then he allegedly purchased, with state money, silk sheets or silk boxer shorts, sexual lubricants, photos that included pornographic images and a dedicated computer for the research. Brodie allegedly objected to the purchases but was overruled by Shults.

The plaintiffs allege the Department of Human Services “routinely mocked, humiliated, suspended, terminated, demoted, or marginalized those who spoke up on behalf of Glenwood Resource Center’s residents,” and sought to punish those who challenged the agency’s actions.

Court records indicate the research at Glenwood is now being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice, Iowa Board of Medicine and the Iowa Department of Public Safety’s Division of Criminal Investigation.