Local legislator feels Toledo juvenile home is miscast

Rep. Dean Fisher feels the recent controversy over the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo is overblown.

Fisher, a Republican from Garwin, said many changes have taken place in the past six months – a story he feels the media is missing.

The home came under fire in July when the Des Moines Register reported in a series of articles that administrators berated and physically abused some residents while others were locked up in isolation for months. State law allows the use of solitary confinement but for no longer than 24 hours.

Fisher visited the home Friday and said he doubts the allegations of abuse by staff. He also said the Register’s reporting was unbalanced and inaccurate.

“The staff has had to put up with a lot of undue scrutiny that’s put them under a lot of stress and hopefully the real story gets out about why these seclusion rooms are used,” Fisher said.

The home serves girls ages 12 to 18, some of whom have broken the law while others have experienced severe abuse or neglect. Some residents asked to be place in isolation, Fisher said.

“Some of them have been raped in their own beds by family members and don’t feel safe (unless they are alone),” he said.

Fisher wasn’t sure if any girls placed in isolation cells did not want to stay there. The Register spoke with four former residents of the home, each of whom said they were traumatized by extended stays in isolation.

Sen. Steve Sodders, D-State Center, Monday called for a joint investigation into the home through the oversight committees in the House and Senate with equal membership between Republicans and Democrats.

Fisher scoffed at that notion.

“Where’s he been for six months?” Fisher said.

Fisher does feel the legislature has an important role to play in overseeing the home but feels the home has made much progress since interim director Mark Day was installed earlier this year.

Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, issued an executive order Tuesday forming a five-member task force to produce recommendations for the embattled home. The group, headed by Executive Director of the Drake Legal Clinic Jerry Foxhoven, is expected to submit its recommendations by Oct. 15.

The order also mandates staff to schedule trauma-informed care training within 30 days.

Branstad said he is particularly concerned about the use of isolation cells for prolonged periods.

“We want to see this corrected and we want to see them conform to the same polices that our non-profit providers provide in the state of Iowa,” Branstad said.

Disability Rights Iowa, an advocacy group for Iowans with disabilities and mental illnesses, made some of the initial discoveries reported by the Register. It is continuing with its own investigation. Branstad said he met with the group and found their claims to be credible.

“The allegations are significant enough and the problems these kids have faced are great enough that this deserves quick action,” Branstad said.

Branstad said he would wait until the task force returned its recommendations on how best to proceed.

Sodders would rather the legislature take the lead.

Sodders called Branstad’s executive order a good first step but felt the task force “should report back to us and not to him.”

“Any changes (at the home) are going to have to be made by the Legislature,” Sodders said.

Branstad told the T-R that he doesn’t mind if the legislature proceeds as Sodders wants, but, “I don’t want to wait until the legislature comes back. That’s why I issued the executive order now.”

The oversight committees can meet throughout the year but substantive changes in how the girls’ home is run would require action by the entire legislature.

Sodders agrees with Fisher that isolation rooms offer a place to temporarily place someone who is threatening to hurt themselves or others.

“To get rid of them, that seems like a rush,” Sodders said.