Iowa Senate approves plan for juvenile facility

DES MOINES – A plan to develop a state-run facility for delinquent girls narrowly cleared the Iowa Senate Thursday, but the odds of the measure receiving bipartisan support moving forward are unclear.

The Senate approved the bill in a party-line vote, with 26 Democrats in favor and 22 Republicans opposed. The legislation now goes to the House, where it could face Republican opposition.

The bill comes in response to Gov. Terry Branstad’s closure of the Iowa Juvenile Home on Jan. 15. It was originally drafted with the intent of reopening the home, but now just says a state-run center for delinquent girls is needed as soon as possible.

“Today we should focus on doing right by these girls,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, who sponsored the bill.

Branstad, who closed the home following allegations that teens were improperly treated and educated at the facility, has opposed the legislation since it was proposed. An investigation by the advocacy group Disability Rights Iowa and stories by The Des Moines Register brought the mistreatment to light. They reported that staffers relied on isolation cells and physical restraints.

House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, has said Republicans in the House remain focused on doing what’s in the best interest of the girls affected by the closure.

Under the bill, educational and treatment services would be improved to address the needs of delinquent girls not previously served, and a state-owned facility would have to be repurposed to begin services immediately upon enactment.

But Sen. David Johnson, R-Ocheyedan, said it would be impossible to find a location with the proper licensure for such an endeavor, and the girls’ current placements would better serve them until an accredited state facility is established.

“It’s time to move on,” he said. “For right now, we ought to take full advantage of the licensed, accredited private providers.”

Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, rose in support of the bill, saying there needs to be equity in how troubled youth across the state are handled. A facility for delinquent boys remains open in Eldora.

“Someone in this chamber explain to me the equity in that. …We cannot just blow this issue off by closing our doors,” she said. “We need to lead with solutions.”

Johnson suggested taking a bit more time to study how the troubled girls would best be served before rushing toward a solution, but Bolkcom said he fears they will fall through the cracks if action isn’t taken soon.

“Without a bill, the existing Iowa code determines where and how programs for our delinquent girls would be determined,” he said. “It’s not a perfect bill, but it’s the only one on the table.”

The closure has also sparked legal action from four Democratic lawmakers. They joined with the head of the state’s largest employees’ union to file a lawsuit against Branstad and Department of Human Services Director Chuck Palmer, urging for the home’s reopening. A district judge recently ruled in their favor, but Branstad appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, where the case will be reviewed.