DHS director sends mixed messages on juvenile justice

Amid allegations of mistreatment at the Boys State Training School in Eldora, Iowa Department of Human Services Director Jerry Foxhoven says there’s no need for changes. But that’s not the opinion he expressed a few months ago.

Disability Rights Iowa, a federally mandated and funded protection and advocacy group, released a report last week detailing concerns with the school, including improper use of seclusion and restraints and a lack of behavior health treatments.

The school was established and is run by the state to provide treatment and rehabilitation services to boys, ages 12 to 18, who are found by juvenile courts to be delinquent. More often than not, these are male juveniles who have committed multiple, lower-level crimes, but the facility also houses teens convicted of violent acts. Capacity of the facility is 130, and recent population has hovered around 110 boys.

In the wake of the Disability Rights Iowa report, Foxhoven told members of the Iowa Council on Human Services that he is not planning a deeper investigation.

“I can tell you in all honesty, this is an institution I’m really proud that our name’s on,” Foxhoven said, according to a Des Moines Register report.

“I’m really proud of what we do there,” Foxhoven said. “We do a really, really good job with really, really tough kids.”

Department of Human Services Director Jerry Foxhoven discusses his plans for guiding one of Iowa's largest state agencies, which serves more than 1 million vulnerable state residents.
Department of Human Services Director Jerry Foxhoven discusses his plans for guiding one of Iowa’s largest state agencies, which serves more than 1 million vulnerable state residents. (Rod Boshart/The Gazette)

Six months ago, however, Foxhoven was one of four authors on a white paper that advocated against an Eldora-like facility for juvenile girls adjudicated delinquent. At that time Foxhoven was executive director of clinical programs at Drake University Law School.

The white paper was written to provide additional context on why the four men objected to certain recommendations made by the Iowa Girls Justice Initiative that are detailed in their report, “Serious, Violent, and Chronic Juvenile Female Offenders: Service and System Recommendations for Iowa,” which was published the same month.

All four white paper authors were part of the Girls Justice Initiative planning group that wrote the report. A key recommendation was to develop a secure or semi-secure facility as a placement of last resort for delinquent juvenile girls.

While many of the objections to this recommendation focus on specific charges made in the Girls Justice Initiative report, the white paper also offers a fairly brutal assessment of state training schools.

“Multiple states have narrowed their statutes to lessen the amount of youth eligible for locked facilities since research shows that locked facilities are harmful to youth and are costly to the state when balanced with the fact they do not reduce recidivism,” the authors wrote.

They later added: “The current national trend in juvenile justice reform is to close State Training Schools and other locked facilities and use community-based alternatives. For those youth who absolutely need an out-of-home placement, which should be very few, small group home settings or therapeutic foster care closer to the youth’s home should be utilized.”

Not only do Foxhoven and the other authors argue that community-based care is better for youth, they discuss how it also is better for the Iowa taxpayer by comparing daily costs at the Iowa Juvenile Home and State Training School for Girls in Toledo.

That facility, which primarily housed girls with nowhere else to go, was shuttered by former Gov. Terry Branstad in January 2014.

It, too, came under fire by Disability Rights Iowa for mistreatment of the teens housed there. (In fact, Foxhoven led Branstad’s task force that released a report in October 2013 that advocated for improving, not closing, the facility. He later said he supported Branstad’s decision — a contention that carries forward into the February 2017 white paper.)

Pointing to Florida programs that provide community-based facilities with wraparound services for delinquent youth and their families, Foxhoven and his co-authors infer the state could be paying $75 per day for treatment and rehabilitation. (They contrast this with cost estimates at the juvenile home — $468 to $522 per youth.)

According to DHS data, the daily per diem rate at Eldora is $300. Cost per episode of care is $43,253. The facility’s budget is $16.1 million, with 84 percent from the state’s general fund.

The yearly cost for 130 boys to be part of a community-based system described in the white paper would be roughly $3.6 million.

Ignoring (for now) that neither option exists for Iowa girls in the juvenile justice system — leading to dangerous out-of-state placements, more time in “temporary” detention that offers little or no treatment, and greater risk for more contact with the courts and adult convictions — and focusing only on Eldora and male juveniles: Foxhoven and the state can’t have it both ways.

Either state training schools are in the best interest of our youth or they aren’t. Either community-based placements with wraparound services provide a more cost-effective means of assuring public and private safety or they don’t.

Is a “really, really good job” truly the best we can do?

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on August 13, 2017. Photo credit: Rod Boshart/The Gazette