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Iowa Juvenile Home operations focus of statehouse hearing

(Radio Iowa) – The leader of the group that blew the whistle on problems at the Iowa Juvenile Home in Eldora says she wants to focus on solutions for the future rather than the problems of the past. Jane Hudson, executive director of Disability Rights Iowa, was the first speaker at a four-hour-long statehouse hearing focused on operations at the home.

“Most people don’t even know who we are,” Hudson said, laughing, “probably in this room you never heard of us before this.”

Hudson offered “kudos” to Governor Branstad for ordering changes at the home, but Hudson came with a long list of suggestions, like having the home run like a treatment and recovery center rather operate like a prison. Last November Disability Rights Iowa discovered some teenagers in the facility were being held for months in isolation cells.

“We weren’t expecting to find anything. Most of our monitoring visits are very routine,” Hudson said. “…The story that got me personally was there was one young girl who had a physical disability so she was very small for her size and they physically observed a staff person saying, ‘Sorry honey. Honey, we have to close the door. You have to go in here,’ and bang this door was closed on this young girl.”

Hudson’s group discovered the teens in isolation were not getting schooling, which is against federal law. Hudson recommends year-round school for teenage girls in the Iowa Juvenile Home, run by staff in the facility rather than enrolling the residents in the nearby Tama School District.

Governor Branstad has repeatedly said the facility holds the “worst of the worst” teenagers who can’t be held in less secure settings, but Hudson is asking Branstad and others to “be careful about labeling” the home’s residents because most of the teens “have very difficult lives” and many were abused by an adult before arriving at the Iowa Juvenile Home.

“Ninety-eight percent of the youth had mental health diagnoses; 51 percent had post-traumatic stress disorder; 68 percent were in special education and 43 percent had previously been in psychiatric medical institutions for children in the state,” Hudson said.

Democratic legislators who convened the public hearing this morning also plan to question officials from the three state agencies that are to oversee operations at the home. The hearing began at 8 a.m. and is scheduled to end at noon.