Iowa mother sues over state-run facility’s use of ‘torture’ device and isolation

A statue holds the scales of justice. (Creative Commons photo via Pxhere)

A western Iowa mother is suing the state of Iowa for allegedly subjecting her son to assault and isolation while the boy resided at the state-run Boys State Training School in Eldora.

It is the first such lawsuit to follow a federal judge’s finding last year that officials who ran the Eldora home had “tortured” and violated the rights of the young offenders who were ordered to live there by the Iowa courts.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court, alleges the confinement, restraint, lack of treatment and punishment of Brady DeJong-Pedersen, now 19, are “outrageous and so extreme as to cross all possible bounds of decency such that a reasonable person would regard them as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”

Court records indicate that DeJong-Pedersen, of Sioux Center, was charged with domestic assault in 2015, when he was 15 years old. In 2016, he was charged with sexual abuse of a child under the age of 12, later reduced to a charge of assault with intent to commit sexual abuse, and he was ordered to the Eldora facility for housing, schooling and treatment.

Eldora, which is run by the Iowa Department of Human Services, is populated largely by youth who have a mental health issue that requires treatment with psychiatric drugs.

During his two-and-a-half years at Eldora, DeJong-Pedersen was allegedly deprived of basic mental health treatment other than medication, despite heart and liver conditions and several mental health diagnoses that indicated a need for counseling or psychotherapy. The lawsuit alleges that as a form of punishment, the school repeatedly subjected DeJong-Pedersen to excessive stays in solitary confinement cells within the home’s Behavioral Stabilization Unit.

State juvenile court records indicate that during his 31 months at the Eldora home, DeJong-Pedersen was admitted to the unit 233 times.

As a punitive measure, the school allegedly placed DeJong-Pedersen in a restraint device called “the wrap” — a 14-point restraint device that straps a child to a bed. According to the lawsuit, DeJong-Pedersen was subjected to the wrap multiple times, despite a physician’s warning against any physical restraints that would place pressure on his chest.

On at least one occasion, he was allegedly stripped of his clothing or had his clothing cut off him with a box cutter by the staff. He was then forced into the wrap while nude and left there, the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit also alleges that as a result of inadequate supervision at Eldora, DeJong-Pedersen was abused at the hands of other students in the facility.

The lawsuit notes that factual findings and conclusions regarding the alleged violations were addressed last year in a court ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Rose, who ruled that that the state had repeatedly “tortured” and violated the rights of youth at the Eldora home.

Rose 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.

The lawsuit names as defendants Jerry Foxhoven and Charles Palmer, the former directors of the Iowa Department of Human Services; Richard Shults, the former administrator of DHS’ Mental Health and Disability Services Division; Mark Day, the former superintendent of the school; Lynn Allbee, the home’s treatment program administrator; Brett Lawrence, the facility’s treatment services director; and Louis Wright, a supervisor at the home. The plaintiff in the case is Ellen DeJong-Pedersen of Sioux Center, Brady’s mother and guardian.

The defendants have yet to file a response to the lawsuit.

In addition to unspecified actual damages, the lawsuit seeks punitive damages to discourage the defendants from continuing to engage in the conduct alleged in the lawsuit.

State court records indicate that in November 2016, Senior District Judge Brian Michaelson reviewed DeJong-Pedersen’s treatment at the Eldora home, noted that the youth hadn’t had any weeks of “positive” behavior since his admission and had refused treatment in the sex-abuse program, but ordered DeJong-Pedersen to remain there.

In January 2017, Judge Michaelson again found DeJong-Pedersen had made “minimal progress” at the home, had stabbed a fellow student and had been removed from the sex offender treatment program. “The record continues to clearly indicate that Brady needs to be in treatment in a highly structured program such as the State Training School,” Michaelson ruled.

In November 2019, after being discharged from the Eldora home, DeJong-Pedersen was charged with failing to comply with the requirements of the Iowa Sex Offender Registry. He allegedly went to a church gymnasium and showed a group of minors pornographic images of women. He was sentenced to pay a $625 fine, plus $100 in court costs.

Earlier this month, Judge Rose ruled that the various advocacy groups that successfully sued the state over conditions in the Eldora home are entitled to collect $4.9 million in legal fees and expenses from the state.

 

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.