Iowa Officials Accused of Mistreating Juveniles at Boys’ Home

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – Three juveniles claim in court that Iowa’s Boys State Training School violates the rights of offenders with mental health problems by providing grossly inadequate health care and subjecting them to physical restraints and solitary confinement.

Three boys, all age 16 who are identified by initials only, filed a 61-page class-action lawsuit Monday against state officials in Des Moines federal court. The complaint was filed by Nathan Kirstein of Disability Rights Iowa as well as attorneys with Children’s Rights.

Named as defendants are Jerry Foxhoven, director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, Iowa Division of Mental Health and Disability Services Administrator Richard Shults and Mark Day, superintendent of the Boys State Training School.

The facility in Eldora, Iowa, houses up to 130 boys ranging in age from 12 to 19 in state custody and adjudicated by the Iowa civil court system as juvenile delinquents.

“The primary goal of delinquency proceedings is to further the best interests of the child, not to punish, and to provide care and education to the child,” the complaint states.

A majority of the juveniles at Boys State suffer from some form of mental illness, according to the lawsuit, with diagnoses including bipolar, post-traumatic, obsessive-compulsive and oppositional defiance disorders, anxiety and depression. Some are suicidal.

The three lead plaintiffs – identified as G.R., J.S. and C.P. – allege that the facility is “grossly inadequate” in providing professional psychiatric care for its youths, with no full-time, on-site professional psychiatrist.

Instead, Boys State often relies on powerful psychotropic drugs often without the informed consent of parents or guardian, the juveniles say, or it resorts to physical restraints or solitary confinement in bare cells for as long as 23 hours a day.

“Defendants fail to provide these children with adequate mental health care, administer dangerous psychotropic medication without adequate oversight or informed consent, and unlawfully subject these children to solitary confinement and mechanical restraints as physical punishment for minor infractions of the rules that are symptomatic of their illness,” the lawsuit states. “Even children suffering from acute psychosis or other mental health emergencies will not receive the prompt psychiatric care they need. Instead, they are often confined to a filthy cell and kept in solitary confinement for days before they are seen by any mental health professional.”

G.R., J.S. and C.P. claim a lack of necessary treatment at Boys State has caused juveniles there “to engage in increased symptomatic behaviors, such as violent or assaultive conduct; acts of self-mutilation and self-harm; attempts of suicide; depression, isolation, and withdrawal; failure to keep clean and other unhygienic behavior; smearing feces on themselves and their cells; screaming; hoarding or refusing food; and flooding their cells with water from the toilet.”

“Moreover, in the absence of adequate mental health treatment, children are frequently subjected to periods of isolated confinement for engaging in such symptomatic conduct,” the complaint states.

Spokespersons for the Iowa Department of Human Services and the Iowa Attorney General declined Tuesday to comment on the lawsuit.

G.R. is a 16-year-old African-American who was removed from his biological parents’ custody when he was 1 year old. He is diagnosed with numerous disorders and has exhibited psychotic symptoms, but claims he has been denied adequate mental therapy or individualized care. Instead, drugs have been prescribed to control his behavior, with only boilerplate warnings of negative side effects, the lawsuit alleges.

According to the complaint, G.R. has been on suicide watch 27 times. Between February and August of this year, he says he had been restrained at least 141 times for more than 77 hours, most of that time in a device called “the wrap,” a 14-point restraint that makes movement nearly impossible. He alleges he was placed in solitary confinement at least 53 times for about 1,000 hours.

The juveniles say the conditions at the Boys Training School violate the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as the due process clause of 14th Amendment and the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment

They seek a permanent injunction against further violations of their rights and those of all youth confined at Boys State “who have a significant mental illness or emotional impairment, as determined by a mental health professional qualified under the laws and regulations of Iowa.”

The juveniles’ attorney, Kirstein, told Courthouse News that Disability Rights Iowa has been “knocking on the state’s door” on these issues since similar abuses were exposed at the now-closed State Girls Training School in Toledo, Iowa, five years ago.

In August, the organization issued a public report outlining the issues cited in the lawsuit but says it saw no action from Iowa officials.

“This was the last resort,” Kirstein said of the lawsuit.

Kirstein said the best scenario would be a consent decree where the parties would agree on what conditions need to change, as outlined in the complaint, which would be overseen by a federal court for a few years.

Disability Rights Iowa is a nonprofit watchdog that is is part of a national network of protection and advocacy systems created by Congress in the 1970s to act as advocates for children and the disabled.

The other group representing the plaintiffs, Children’s Rights, is a New York-based nonprofit that advocates for children who have been removed from their families.

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