Troubled state-run school in Eldora gets a new superintendent

    Iowa Department of Human Services Director Kelly Garcia speaks at a news conference on July 7, 2020, in Des Moines. (Photo by Iowa Capital Dispatch)

    The former superintendent of a juvenile correctional facility in Kansas has been appointed to lead the troubled Iowa Boys State Training School in Eldora.

    The appointment of Wendy Leiker as the new school superintendent follows what the Iowa Department of Human Services calls a “broad search and extensive interview process” that involved DHS leaders, the attorney general’s office and staff at the Eldora facility.

    DHS officials said Leiker has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Washburn University and has completed most of her graduate work toward a master’s degree in “justice services.”

    Leiker has 17 years of juvenile justice experience, having begun her career as a juvenile corrections officer.  DHS says Leiker has “worked multiple shifts and in multiple roles,” including second-shift supervisor and disciplinary hearing officer.

    Before serving as superintendent of Kansas’ sole juvenile correctional facility, the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex, Leiker led the Larned Juvenile Correctional Facility and also served as the assistant superintendent at Larned State Hospital in Kansas.

    In a written statement, DHS Director Kelly Garcia said, “This is such critical time for the facility, which demands strong leadership to meet the unique needs of the youth we serve. I’m tremendously excited about the passion and commitment to juvenile justice that Wendy brings to the agency. She has the proven experience to lead BSTS into the next chapter.”

    In March, U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose held the state of Iowa liable for violating the constitutional rights of children at the Eldora 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, Rose said the Eldora 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 — violated the U.S. Constitution.

    She wrote that the school’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 posed to children.

    In her ruling, Rose said DHS officials “did nothing” to evaluate the safety of the wrap even after being alerted to the risks involved. DHS officials, she ruled, 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 ordered the state to submit a plan to “remedy the constitutional deficiencies in the school’s mental health treatment programs.”

    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.