Officials from the Iowa Department of Social Services and former residents of Boys State Training School agree that staff at the Eldora facility subject teens to coercion and isolation. But in nine days of testimony in Federal Court, they disagreed on whether the measures were necessary and humane.
Testimony ended Tuesday in the former students’ class action lawsuit, but a verdict is likely months away.
Lawyers for both sides have until August 23 to file documents after the trial. Oral closing arguments will take place after that. U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose will then decide the case.
Disability Rights Iowa and Children’s Rights Inc., a national advocacy group, filed the class action lawsuit in 2017. The lawsuit seeks to force the Iowa Department of Social Services to change its practices at the institution, which houses about 100 boys who have been convicted of committing crimes.
Pennsylvania psychologist Kirk Heilbrun, the final witness in the case, testified Tuesday as the state’s national expert. Heilbrun, who teaches psychology and law at Drexel University, said the Eldora School has “great leadership” and dedicated staff. “There was an obvious rapport and caring for the children,” he said.
Heilbrun said that after being hired by state attorneys defending the school, he worked with his graduate students to review thousands of pages of reports about the use of seclusion rooms for restless teenagers.
In each case, Heilbrun rated the incident as a “2”, in which he found the use of seclusion to be appropriate; a “1”, in which staff could have tried less restrictive measures first; or a “0”, in which the use of isolation was inappropriate. In most of the cases Heilbrun testified to, he gave staff use of seclusion rooms scores of 2 or 1.
Isolation rooms are small, spartan spaces with doors that lock from the outside.
State officials have said they are using isolation and restraints as a last resort to protect student safety. Plaintiffs argue that methods, including a large Velcro device that immobilizes boys on a bed, are often misused to discipline boys for misbehavior. They argue that the practices are particularly harmful for the large number of students who have mental illnesses or a history of trauma.
In court on Tuesday, students’ attorney Timothy Farrell asked Heilbrun about his assessments of cases in which reports showed students had been placed in solitary confinement for alleged misconduct.
According to school records that Farrell read in court, these were cases among which Heilbrun deemed the use of solitary was not inappropriate:
- A boy answered the staff and refused to sit down.
- A boy spoke when his group was supposed to be silent. The boy smiled and responded sarcastically when a staff member told him to shut up. A member of staff asked the boy what was funny, and he replied “that program”.
- A waiter took ketchup out of a fridge at lunch after staff said the ketchup was reserved for dinner.
Farrell said records show that for a few months about half of the students at the school were placed in solitary confinement.
Earlier in the trial, mental health professionals hired by the plaintiffs testified that students with a history of mental illness were “extremely vulnerable” to lasting psychological harm from restraint or isolation.
The main defendant in the lawsuit is Jerry Foxhoven, a former director of the Iowa Department of Social Services, which operates the boys’ public school. Foxhoven resigned abruptly on Monday, at the request of Governor Kim Reynolds. The governor’s office did not explain why she ousted Foxhoven after two years, saying only that she wanted to “go in a new direction” with the department. The governor said reporters on Wednesday that the Eldora school trial did not contribute to his request to resign from Foxhoven.
In court on Tuesday, the judge and attorneys for both sides said there should be no problem replacing Iowa’s new director of human services as the main defendant in the lawsuit, which is seeking changes in practices at school. The suit does not seek monetary damages.
Foxhoven testified in person for the defense last week, calling the school in Eldora a “last resort” for boys who have committed serious crimes. He also appeared in a videotaped deposition that the plaintiffs played in court on the first day of the trial.
On the video, Foxhoven said he had never seen “the wrap” restraint in use and did not know where all of its straps were. He also said he doesn’t know who decides which boys should be tied up with the Scarf; whether boys with multiple mental disorders had been placed there; or whether the cries of the boys held in the device could be heard elsewhere in the building where it is being used. Foxhoven also said he did not know if it was true that a boy had been restrained more than 100 times.
At first, Foxhoven said in the deposition that he did not recall if he discussed pursuing disability rights in Iowa with the governor, but he later said he did. .
Foxhoven, a former Drake University law professor who specializes in child welfare, led a task force in 2013 that looked at the use of solitary confinement cells at the former girls’ school at the State in Toledo. The task force found that seclusion was overused in the girls’ school. His findings help trigger the government of the day. Terry Branstad’s decision to close the establishment. In his deposition in the ongoing trial, Foxhoven said the situations were different because all residents of the boys’ school were convicted of committing crimes. That wasn’t true for most of the girls at the Toledo facility.