Former IJH employees: We’ve been maligned

TOLEDO – When Logan Lafler thinks about the Iowa Juvenile Home’s current vacant state when he knows it could serve struggling young girls, he can’t help but shake his head.

“Knowing that there’s lots of Iowa youth out there that need help and there’s a facility like that sitting empty, it’s heartbreaking to see that,” said Lafler, a former youth services worker at IJH.

Former staff members Lafler, Esther Keller, Steve Burr and Yvonne Mallory gathered recently to talk about misconceptions and allegations they said led to the closing of IJH on Jan. 15 by Gov. Terry Branstad.

The governor’s office has continued to stress the young girls at IJH did not receive “adequate care” or the education or safety levels they deserved.

Former teacher Yvonne Mallory calls the closing of IJH a “perfect storm” of wishes of Disability Rights Iowa, Branstad and a statewide publication.

“We have been maligned by the Des Moines Register, the governor’s office and Disability Rights Iowa,” Mallory said. “They have taken minuscule amounts of truth and have totally twisted it to serve their own agendas. We and Iowa’s youth are the losers.”

Seclusion rooms

The governor’s office said an investigation found that children had been subjected to over 47,000 hours of solitary isolation and mistreated in a facility that was intended to serve and protect them.

The staff said state leaders with the Department of Human Services had access to all the logs of those who were in seclusion. Burr, a former substitute teacher and interim principal at IJH, said state leaders even approved plans for the facility which houses these rooms.

“Nothing in the facility was built without their approval,” Burr said.

Lafler said often students would ask to be restrained or would thank him for putting them in a seclusion room to keep themselves and others safe.

Burr said the use of restraints was not the first course of action for staff.

“The staff were following a hierarchy of responses,” Burr said. “The staff was very cautious.”

Education levels

Another reason for the closure of IJH was the level of education provided. Mallory said the accusation that staff provided inferior education levels is not true. She said state officials marked education as deficient if just a minor thing was off. She said students come in with a wide range of educational abilities and staff has to adjust. But Mallory said IJH should not have been deemed deficient in providing education.

“It’s just flat out false,” Mallory said.

Dedicated staff

Keller, a former nurse at the facility, said she worked with a dedicated staff who cared about the students. Even though abuse was found, that does not represent the majority of the staff, she said.

“The biggest frustration is the accusation that all of the Iowa Juvenile Home staff are abusers,” Keller said. “You wouldn’t have nurses and counselors and educators all devote 20 to 30 years of their life and career to spend trying to better the lives of these children if they wanted to abuse them. They really had a mission to try to help people have a better future and a better life.”

Continued push to reopen

Local legislators Sen. Steve Sodders, D-State Center and Rep. Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown, won a lawsuit to try to reopen IJH but Branstad’s appeal has now moved to the Iowa Supreme Court. The Iowa Senate also approved a bill that would require a state facility for delinquent girls, but did not indicate it had to be Toledo.

Mallory said while the status of IJH plays out in the courts, former staff members continue on their own mission – to get their story told.

“We are continuing the process to inform, create awareness and educate the public that we have been severely maligned and what they have said about us is not the truth,” Mallory said.