DES MOINES — A district court judge on Wednesday ordered the state to reopen the Iowa Juvenile Home, telling Gov. Terry Branstad he cannot unilaterally change a law approved by the state Legislature.
Judge Scott Rosenberg said the home in Toledo was created by the Legislature with approval of the executive branch of government. More than $8.8 million was approved by the Legislature to run it and cannot be eliminated by the governor or executive branch officials, he said. To allow the governor to essentially eliminate the home’s budget and operation “allows the executive branch to unilaterally decide which laws it will obey and which laws it will not.”
“This is not the basis upon which our government in Iowa was established by our Iowa Constitution that established the three separate branches of government along with their duties and responsibilities,” Rosenberg wrote in an opinion filed Wednesday.
Branstad closed the facility in January following allegations that teens were improperly treated and denied a proper education.
Four Democrats, two from the Senate and two from the House, and the president of a state workers’ union sued Branstad and Charles Palmer, the Iowa Department of Human Services director to keep the home open.
Of the 21 girls who had been living at the home, six have been sent home, two placed in detention centers for delinquent youth and the others were moved into a mix of public and private facilities around the state, a DHS spokeswoman has said.
It wasn’t immediately clear when or how the home would reopen.
“We don’t know,” said Sen Steve Sodders, of State Center, one of the Democrats who filed the lawsuit. “The ruling was real clear that it’s to be reopened, that the governor didn’t have the constitutional authority, which we had claimed at the beginning, to close it. We also know that the governor’s office could still appeal the decision. I don’t know if it’s over yet.”
Branstad’s spokesman, Jimmy Centers said in an email statement that the governor’s concern was the children “who did not receive adequate care at the Iowa Juvenile Home.” He said placing them in their own homes or other accredited facilities was in their best interest.
“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,” he said. “Additionally, the Iowa Department of Education ruled the children had been denied the education they deserve.”
As for the court ruling, he said: “Our office is reviewing the ruling and working with the Attorney General’s office to explore all options.”
House Democratic Leader Mark Smith said it was a terrible mistake for the governor to close the home.
“It’s time for the governor to work with us on the bipartisan bill offered in the Legislature that will not only improve our statewide assessment system for both boys and girls, but also create an accredited treatment center for females at the Iowa Juvenile Home location,” he said.
Sen. Jack Hatch, a Des Moines Democrat and candidate for governor, said the Senate has begun working on a bill that will reform how the state helps troubled children.
“Iowans never wanted to abandon these children. We want instead to improve their conditions and their futures,” he said. “Gov. Branstad should join the conversation about how to implement a new, more effective, and more accountable statewide approach to helping Iowa boys and girls who need serious help.”
The home housed some of Iowa’s most troubled girls. The treatment of children at the center in Toledo came to light after an investigation by the advocacy group Disability Rights Iowa and stories by The Des Moines Register. They reported that physical restraints were used on children and that staffers relied on isolation cells.