All involved in the debate over the future of girls formerly housed at the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo say their No. 1 concern is the welfare of children. They will have a chance to prove that in the coming weeks.
A bill expected to be considered by a Senate committee this week is a way to create safe shelter for troubled girls who otherwise could fall through the cracks as a result of Gov. Terry Branstad’s abrupt closing of the Toledo home.
The draft proposal should at the very least serve as a place to begin discussions between legislators and the governor. All parties should put aside partisan rancor and keep their minds open to what is best for these girls.
The draft legislation approved by a Senate human resources subcommittee last week would create a secure facility for girls adjudicated as delinquent by a judge and assigned to a state training school. It would not accept juvenile girls who are under court jurisdiction as a child in need of assistance, meaning the facility would house only 20 to 25 girls.
The facility would be operated by the state rather than by a private provider. It would have to be accredited by the American Corrections Association and inspected by the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals.
State-certified classes would be provided through a local school district. The state would continue to provide a continuum of services after girls emerge from the training school when they reach age 18.
“I think this is a great solution,” said Jerry Foxhoven, a Drake University law professor and expert in juvenile law. Foxhoven chaired the task force the governor created last year to study the Juvenile Home. “It solves the problem,” he said of the Senate proposal.
That problem is the challenge the state now faces in placing juvenile delinquent girls following Gov. Branstad’s order closing the Juvenile Home in December.
The governor’s decision was appropriate. It came in response to The Des Moines Register’s reports on mistreatment of juveniles at the home by employees over the years, including extended isolation in barren cells, physical abuse and a failure to provide adequate educational services for the girls.
The governor was rightly outraged about the treatment of juveniles at the home and the culture of the facility that allowed it to go on for so long. But his abrupt closure of the Toledo facility left the Department of Human Services scrambling to provide shelter and services for about 21 girls who remained in the home. Most of those girls were placed in public and private facilities, and six were sent home. Some of those six have apparently since run away.
The failure to arrange for permanent placements was an unfortunate consequence of the governor’s decision. And, while there are acceptable placement options for many girls who would otherwise be assigned to the Iowa Juvenile Home, there is no good alternative for girls who are assigned by a judge to a secure facility that is one step short of adult incarceration.
This legislation would fill that gap in a way that appears to cure many of the problems at Toledo.
The challenge will be to get the governor to agree to what might look like backtracking. That would be more likely if the legislation has broad, bipartisan support and if it stays away from the issue of where to locate such a facility. This legislation should be a place to begin a discussion about a mutually acceptable location rather than bid by lawmakers to reopen the Toledo home.
A potential stumbling block is a lawsuit involving the Juvenile Home that is now playing out in court. A Polk County judge ordered the home reopened after a group of Democratic legislators and a labor leader challenged the governor’s authority. The legal issues raised in that case, which is now before the Iowa Supreme Court, should proceed. The question needs to be resolved about where to draw the line on a governor’s power to close state facilities created and funded by the Legislature.
However that legal issue is resolved, the Legislature and governor should work toward finding common ground on how best to provide services to delinquent juvenile girls. The legislation on deck this week is a place to begin finding that common ground.