Letter to the Editor,
Recent news stories have raised questions about the Iowa Juvenile Home. These stories have tried to portray the Iowa Juvenile Home (IJH) as a dangerous place for Iowa kids. As your state representative I have been reviewing the situation and I hope to ease the concerns many of you have raised to me.
It is important that we understand the mission of the Iowa Juvenile Home. IJH serves as the state's facility to care for girls who have committed acts that have them adjudicated to be juvenile delinquents. IJH also serves as the state's home for boys and girls who have been determined by a juvenile court to be a child in need of assistance or CINA. The Home can serve as the temporary home for up to 57 juveniles between age 12 and 18, and the only way a child can be placed here is by the order of a judge.
It is also important to understand that nearly all of these children are victims of severe abuse in their younger childhood. They are not simply spoiled brats that have had every advantage that life has to offer. I have visited the IJH a number of times and heard the stories of many of these children, they are heartbreaking stories that include repeated rape in their own bed by stepfathers, early childhoods spent in drug-houses, the entire litany of human depravity that a child can be subjected to.
Before I continue, let me address what many of the readers are now thinking that the solution is for these kids to be saved from these horrifically abusive situations in the first place. I totally agree. However, we as a society have not yet figured out how to save every child from an abusive home. Perhaps the system for protecting children is broken, or we lack the will to do what is necessary, or perhaps the fact that such abuse seems to be inherent in the human condition makes it impossible to solve.Regardless of the answer the reality is that we as a society are not able to raise every child in a healthy household. These children exist, and we must deal with them.
Another important fact to remember is that these children on the average have been placed in 8 or more other homes and facilities before coming to the IJH. They have likely been in multiple foster homes, many have been in other juvenile detention centers. Many have been committed to a PMIC, (Psychiatric Medical Institute for Children), only to be ejected and sent to the IJH because the PMIC could not handle the child. Think about that one and let it sink in, some of these children have been rejected from psychiatric hospitals. All of these potential solutions have failed the children, the IJH in Toledo is simply the last resort other than total incarceration. The IJH thus performs a valuable and essential function in our child welfare system that no other institution has been able to demonstrate that they are capable of performing.
As a result of the extreme abuse they have been subjected to these children frequently exhibit some very extreme negative behaviors. Some will use any means they can to harm themselves, including repeatedly stabbing themselves with a pencil or pen, tearing apart a calculator to find small parts they can cut themselves with, ripping garments apart so they can choke themselves with a strip of cloth, swallowing objects - including in one case an entire pencil - the list is long. And of course these teenaged children are frequently violent against other children and staff as well. These behaviors are often triggered by some otherwise seemingly innocuous event or words, other times the behavior is simply part of the child's daily existence.
One of the methods used at the IJH to deal with these behaviors has been seclusion or isolation rooms. These rooms are contained in an area right next to the visitor reception area in a very visible part of the main building. It is the use of these rooms that has raised questions. Some of these rooms are simply a small room with nothing but a raised cement shelf with a mattress to serve as a bed and a small barred window, other rooms have a toilet and sink, and others have slightly more furnishings such as a bed and perhaps a cushioned chair. All have doors with windows and another barred window to the outdoors.
In the past a child could be placed in these rooms for exhibiting violence against themselves or others or for other excessively negative behavior, or by request if they simply wanted the quiet time to themselves. These are the only rooms in the IJH where the children can be alone, all other areas are common or open to others out of concern for safety. Some of these children actually preferred to sleep in these seclusion rooms as they felt safer there. Staff did not necessarily perceive these rooms as punishment, but more as a safe place where a child could calm down or reflect on their behavior. Also, many of these children would act out negatively in order to avoid doing their cottage chores or school work by being sent to the seclusion rooms. Some preferred these rooms to the cottages, acting out so they could remain in the seclusion rooms for long periods.
Let me assure everyone that the issues raised in the media are history and the use of the seclusion rooms have been changed radically over the last six months. Staff at the IJH have been working hand in hand with the federally recognized organization Disability Rights Iowa to make significant changes in how these negative behaviors are dealt with and how the seclusion rooms are used. They have provided even more training for the staff. But the seclusion rooms are still used and for good reason. There is little else that can be done when some event triggers one of these children to act out in violence to themselves or others. Safety of the children and the staff must be paramount, and seclusion seems to be the only practical solution when these children turn violent. These children risk far more harm from themselves or others than they risk harm from a stay in a seclusion room. The use of the rooms has dropped to roughly 10% of past use. This does cause some frustration with the staff that have to deal with these negative and violent behaviors, but as time goes by and the new rules become routine hopefully much of that frustration will dissipate.
I want to be clear that not every child at the IJH is that difficult all the time. Many grow past the behaviors that caused them to be placed there in the first place. I had the honor of hosting several young ladies from the IJH at the capitol this past session. Their trip to the capitol was a reward for their exemplary behavior. I enjoyed getting to know these young ladies and showing them the beauty of our state capitol building and talking to them about our state government, they were bright and attentive students. I even had the honor of speaking at the IJH for the high school graduation ceremony honoring one of these young ladies. There are many success stories coming out of the IJH. But unfortunately these successes don't sell newspapers.
The IJH performs a valuable and essential function in our child welfare system. It is the last stop for these children that have not been given a fair chance in life, we must help them to make the necessary changes so they can be productive citizens. This is difficult and dangerous work, it requires a professional and dedicated staff that truly cares about these children. I am grateful for the staffs work and their commitment to these children. As the state representative for the IJH and many of its employees I want to assure them all that I will support the mission of the IJH to the fullest. I have talked with a number of legislators including those I serve with on the Health and Human Services Budget Subcommittee and they share my feelings of support for the IJH staff and their hard work to help these kids.
These children need and deserve the support of the community. If anyone wants to volunteer to help the IJH, please contact the Iowa Juvenile Home Foundation. The foundation assists with fundraising for the IJH, they volunteer to help with the children and many other activities that helps the IJH and its residents. They have a website at www.IowaJuvenileHomeFoundation.org. You can also contact me and I can help get you connected with the foundation.
Representative Dean Fisher