(Des Moines, Iowa)—State officials are knowingly employing unconstitutional and illegal practices at the Boys State Training School in Eldora, Iowa, causing lasting harm to youth with significant mental illnesses, according to a federal class action lawsuit filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa. The lawsuit names as defendants Jerry Foxhoven, director of the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS); Richard Shults, administrator of the Division of Mental Health and Disability Services; and Mark Day, superintendent of the Boys State Training School.
The complaint paints a grim picture of a facility that has no full-time licensed mental health professionals on staff. Instead of providing necessary mental health treatment, workers at Eldora, as it is known, rely heavily on potentially harmful psychotropic medications administered without appropriate oversight or consent—as well as solitary confinement and a full-body mechanical restraint—to control youth who typically have not been convicted of any crime. Two non-profit legal organizations, Children’s Rights (CR) and Disability Rights Iowa (DRI), are seeking a court order to prevent policies and practices that violate their constitutional and federal statutory rights.
“Children with mental health needs should not be thrown in solitary confinement as punishment, or silenced with dangerous medications without proper oversight,” said Harry Frischer, lead counsel at Children’s Rights. “They require tailored psychological and therapeutic supports to have a real chance of growing into fully integrated, productive members of the community. The tactics employed at Eldora are archaic and run counter to the national and professional consensus in the treatment of children in juvenile detention facilities. They are also flat-out harmful and unlawful.”
CR and DRI assert that these boys, aged 12 to 19, do not receive the mental health treatment needed to fulfill the facility’s mission of providing “a program which focuses on appropriate developmental skills, treatment, placements and rehabilitation.” For example, children with mental illnesses have been placed in solitary confinement for raising their voices, arguing with other children, talking while taking a shower and failing to clean up.
The complaint outlines the experiences of several named plaintiffs:
- R., 16, who needs intensive therapy with a licensed practitioner, but instead is receiving brief telephonic “sessions” that don’t follow recommendations for his therapeutic needs. He has been given at least six psychotropic medications since June 2016, without appropriate controls or consent. He has been placed on suicide watch at least 27 times, usually after tying clothing around his neck and threatening to kill himself. He was restrained for 77.53 hours in a seven-month period—including 67 hours in the full body restraint, often as punishment for self-harming behaviors.
- S., 16, has been diagnosed with a number of conditions and has reported auditory hallucinations. He began exhibiting suicidal ideations and behaviors at Eldora, but is consistently denied access to needed mental health services and instead is given psychotropic medications for treatment. J.S. has been placed on suicide watch several times after harming himself while in solitary confinement. During a period of 11 months, J.S. was placed in solitary 81 times for a total of over 580 hours, and he was subject to restraints 22 times in 10 of those months.
- P., 16, has multiple psychiatric diagnoses and a history of depression and suicidal ideation. He also has several severe medical conditions that make his mental health treatment more complex. Despite his mother advocating for him, he is consistently denied therapies that may prove effective. He suffers severe side effects from the psychotropics he routinely receives, including constantly licking his lips, which his mother worries is a symptom of dyskinesia.
“The issues raised in the lawsuit will come as no surprise to the state,” added Nathan Kirstein, attorney with Disability Rights Iowa. “Officials have had multiple opportunities to make changes, and yet they have brushed them aside as though these kids don’t count. The state is required to act as parent, but no responsible parent would treat a child as Eldora does. These youth are there for rehabilitation and treatment—but they receive the exact opposite, and the facility’s harmful tactics are destroying lives.”
The lawsuit is being brought on behalf of all children confined to the Boys State Training School now or in the future and who have significant mental illnesses. CR and DRI assert violations of Plaintiffs’ right to substantive due process as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; their right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, as guaranteed by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; and their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.
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Children’s Rights: Every day, children are harmed in America’s broken child welfare, juvenile justice, education, and healthcare systems. Through relentless strategic advocacy and legal action, we hold governments accountable for keeping kids safe and healthy. Children’s Rights, a national non-profit organization, has made a lasting impact for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children. For more information, please visit www.childrensrights.org.
Disability Rights IOWA is part of a nationwide network of protection and advocacy systems established in the 1970s by the U.S. Congress to respond to abuse and neglect of Iowans with disabilities and/or mental illness. DRI has the authority under federal law to investigate abuse and neglect and pursue legal, administrative and other appropriate remedies to ensure the protection of Iowans with disabilities and/or mental illness. DRI is an independent, non-profit, 501 (c)(3) corporation funded through contributions, and grants from the Federal Government. Disability Rights IOWA advocates for the rights of Iowans with disabilities wherever they may live. For more information, please visit www.disabilityrightsiowa.org.