DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Officials at an Iowa school for juvenile offenders are failing to provide adequate mental health care to youth and are instead administering powerful drugs without proper oversight or consent, according to a lawsuit filed Monday by two advocacy groups.
Disability Rights Iowa and Children's Rights, a national watchdog group, accuse administrators at the state-run Boys State Training School of giving juveniles "dangerous" psychotropic medications. The groups allege the drugs are used "as a behavioral management tool" they likened to a chemical straitjacket.
The lawsuit seeks class-action status but highlights three teenagers with mental health needs who lived at the school in recent years, alleging their treatments — including solitary confinement and restraints — violate the American with Disabilities Act. It alleges medications also were administered to them without comprehensive treatment plans or proper notification parents or next of kin, and boys signed consent forms that didn't detail the drugs' risks.
Disability Rights Iowa said its investigation included repeatedly visiting the school, interviewing housed youth and reviewing health files not available to the general public. The organization is part of a nationwide network of groups with congressional support that help ensure states don't violate the constitutional rights of disabled residents.
The Iowa Department of Human Services oversees the school in Eldora, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) north of Des Moines. The agency said Monday it doesn't comment on pending litigation, but officials defended the school when Disability Rights Iowa released a report in August outlining similar allegations.
Youth ranging in age from 12 to late teens are held under court order at the facility. The school has 130 beds and currently houses between 110 and 120 juveniles. Most of the boys suffer from mental illness and more than 60 percent have been on psychotropic drugs, yet the school has only one full-time unlicensed school psychologist and one part-time psychiatrist, according to Disability Rights Iowa.
The lawsuit said the school's plan to replace the psychiatrist with two other part-time staffers — a psychiatric nurse and a licensed therapist — isn't enough.
One of the three health department officials named in the lawsuit is the school's superintendent, Mark Day. When the August report was released, he said he agreed with its call for expanded mental health services, but said limited funding and a statewide shortage of psychologists and psychiatrists make it difficult to provide more treatment.
Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds said at the time she would rely on Health Department Director Jerry Foxhoven, who also is named in the lawsuit, to investigate. Foxhoven later said he wouldn't order a review of the school.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Des Moines, alleges boys are subjected to solitary confinement for infractions such as raising their voices, arguing with other youth, talking while taking a shower and failing to clean up. Disability Rights Iowa said some infractions can be symptoms of mental illness.
The suit also alleges a 14-point mechanical restraint known as the wrap, with multiple Velcro straps around the body, has been increasingly used at the school. It's been used 109 times during the first seven months of this year, up from 94 times in all of 2016.
"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," said Harry Frischer, lead counsel at Children's Rights, in a statement.