Disability groups agree to limited use of cells at Eldora home for troubled youth

By: - August 18, 2021 11:51 am

A recent renovated room in Corbett Miller Hall at the Boys State Training School in Eldora, Iowa. Advocates for the disabled have agreed to let the school re-open the cells, which were once used to house children in isolation. (Photo by Iowa Department of Human Services)

Advocates for disability rights have agreed to let the state-run Boys State Training School in Eldora reopen the controversial locked unit that once was used to house children in isolation as a form of punishment.

The Iowa Department of Human Services, which runs the home for troubled youth, has been barred from keeping children overnight in the unit’s individual, locked rooms, which function as cells, due to a court order. Faced with a recent spike in violence, DHS has asked a federal judge for permission to modify the order so that the facility can keep youth overnight in the locked cells.

Disability Rights Iowa and other groups that took DHS to court in 2017 to secure the order, told a federal judge this week that they have agreed to support the proposed reopening of the unit, which is called Corbett Miller Hall – but with several stipulations intended to protect any youth who might be housed there.

Among the conditions:

  • Overnight stays would be temporarily allowed during a two-year pilot program, and only in connection with intensive therapeutic programming, and only for youth with significant issues.
  • The policies developed by DHS to implement the pilot program will be subject to approval by both a court-appointed,  independent monitor and the court itself.
  • The unit will be used for therapeutic purposes only and not be used as a form of punishment.
  • The use of isolation, seclusion, and restraints will remain restricted as outlined in existing policies at the school.

The first draft of the proposed new policy for Corbett Miller Hall is to be submitted to the monitor by Dec. 1 of this year, with the final draft going to the court for approval no later than Feb. 15, 2022.

DHS will be allowed to initiate overnight stays in the unit before the policy work is finalized, but only if the court-appointed monitor determines the unit and the staff are prepared and only if other conditions are met. Among them: A sticker must be affixed to each door in the unit, reminding workers they cannot lock youth in a room during waking hours, and reminding the youth that they can submit a written grievance if they have any concerns regarding their treatment.

Before DHS can reinstate overnight use of the unit, the facility must also complete its implementation of planned physical improvements to Corbett Miller Hall that are intended to make the individual cells less “correctional” in nature and more comfortable for the youth housed there.

The agreement between the advocacy groups and DHS has yet to be approved by the court.

The Boys State Training School has been subject to court-ordered monitoring as the result of a 2017 lawsuit brought against DHS for inadequate mental health care services for the youth who are housed and educated there.

The case was decided in 2020, when 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 a restraint device “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.

Dedel recently reported to the court that the problem of increased violence this year “appears to be caused by good-faith efforts to eliminate harmful practices” used by the staff in the past without first implementing a new strategy for managing youth with recurring aggressive behavior. “This ushered in a vicious cycle, where violence and disorder impede the development and delivery of the very practices that were designed to improve” conditions at the school, she wrote.

Dedel also told the court that “the current level of violence and disorder at (the school) completely derails service delivery and the “significant risk of harm faced by youth and staff demands swift action,” she wrote. “The violence at (the school) has grave consequences for the youth and staff who are victimized and injured.”

During the first quarter of 2021, there were 25 to 50 assaults at the Boys State Training School each month — roughly one or two assaults per day, every day, for three months, according to court records. The average rate of youth-on-youth assaults at the facility during the first quarter was more than five times the rate experienced in 2018 and 2019, and the rate of assaults on staff followed a similar trajectory.

Last month, the Eldora facility’s then-superintendent, Wendy Leiker, proposed purchasing $128,000 in new furnishings for Corbett Miller Hall to create a more “welcoming atmosphere.” DHS said this week that Leiker had resigned, effective Aug. 7, during a confidential personnel investigation. The agency did not elaborate.

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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.