Court-appointed monitor says conditions at Eldora home are improving

By: - February 18, 2021 5:03 pm
nterior of an empty courtroom with gavel and sounding block on the desk.

After what it calls “a series of bungles,” the Iowa Department of Transportation is facing additional legal hurdles in its five-year effort to dispose of a small parcel land it owns in Wapello County. (Photo by Getty Images)

A court-appointed, independent monitor says the state-run Boys State Training School in Eldora is improving its treatment of the troubled youth who live there.

In 2017, a class action lawsuit was brought against the Iowa Department of Human Services, which runs the school, alleging inadequate mental health care services for the youth who are housed there. The lawsuit also alleged an overreliance on isolation and the improper use of a mechanical 14-point restraint, known as “the wrap,” which was used to immobilize children.

Last March, U.S. District Judge Stephanie M. Rose held DHS liable for violating the constitutional rights of children at the school. She wrote that the agency’s use of the wrap “shocks the conscience” and amounted to “torture.”

Rose ordered the state to implement a detailed remedial plan to improve the school’s practices, staffing, training and internal oversight. She also appointed Dr. Kelly Dedel, a juvenile justice consultant, to oversee the state’s compliance with that remedial plan.

In a newly filed report to the court, Dedel states that out of 25 requirements in the remedial plan, the school is currently in “substantial compliance” with seven of the requirements and is making progress on complying with all of the others.

In her report, Dedel writes that the Eldora facility “has developed a robust set of policies and procedures that, once fully implemented, should transform the services available to youth … and the tools available to staff who are charged with their care and treatment.”

The wrap has now been removed from the facility, Dedel reported, and the school’s solitary confinement program has been dismantled, and the staff is being trained in more effective behavior management techniques. The facility also has adopted plans to develop the required mental health care program, and hired additional, qualified mental health workers.

The lawsuit that led to the remedial plan was filed by the national child welfare advocacy organization Children’s Rights, the congressionally chartered advocacy group Disability Rights Iowa, and the law firm of Ropes & Gray.

According to Disability Rights Iowa, new leadership at DHS has replaced the senior management responsible for the abuses at Eldora and the department now appears committed to making the necessary changes.

“This report is a sign of progress and hope for boys held at the Iowa Boys’ State Training School — and vindication for the boys who went before them and exposed the brutal truths that led to this lawsuit,” said Nathan Kirstein, lead counsel at Disability Rights Iowa. “And while there is still much work to be done, the seeds have been planted for accomplishing the overarching goal of improving facility conditions and services for youth, ensuring facility safety, and increasing youth’s readiness to be integrated successfully back into their communities.”

“We are very pleased with the steps that the state has taken so far to comply with the court’s order,” said Harry Frischer, lead counsel at Children’s Rights. “The wrap and windowless solitary confinement cells are a thing of the past.”

In her report to the court, Dedel also noted that embarking on a comprehensive reform plan in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic presented significant challenges and has hindered her ability to conduct onsite visits in Eldora.

Last month, Judge Rose ruled that the state of Iowa must pay almost $5 million in legal expenses incurred by the plaintiffs in the case. It’s not known how much the state spent defending the actions of DHS.

More recently, an Iowa mother sued the state for allegedly subjecting her son to assault and isolation while the boy resided at the Boys State Training School.

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Clark Kauffman
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.

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