The Ottumwa Courier

July 24, 2013

Education complaint against Iowa DHS in the works


Ottumwa Courier

---- — DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — An advocacy group for people with disabilities said Wednesday that it will file a complaint against Iowa's Department of Human Services alleging that children kept in isolation at a state-run home were denied education.

Disability Rights Iowa, a nonprofit funded by the federal government, wants the state to pay the cost of additional schooling or tutoring and related expenses, such as transportation, the Des Moines Register reported (http://dmreg.co/13d3oXv ).

The group alleges that children who were living long term in isolation cells at the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo were denied individualized instruction and only given worksheets or instructional packets to complete on their own.

That violates a 24-year-old federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act which requires states to ensure that a "free, appropriate public education" is made available to all children with disabilities, according to the group. The law requires instruction to take place in the least restrictive environment possible, said Nathan Kirstein, an investigator with Disability Rights Iowa.

The U.S. Supreme Court has stated that the law "contemplates personalized instruction with sufficient support services," he said.

The Toledo home provides housing, treatment and schooling to youths with serious behavioral problems. Disability Rights Iowa said the home has placed children as young as 13 in long-term isolation cells, and that it's investigating the practice.

"We're looking at the persons who spent a significant amount of time in these control rooms — one of them being the girl who spent about a year there," Kirstein said. "They will be used as examples, basically, of what we believe was a common practice of long-term isolation."

Kirstein said the complaint to the Department of Education will hopefully force the state to examine its records and determine how many children were kept in isolation for extended periods.

Any calculations the state is required to do in connection with a Disability Rights Iowa complaint could be limited in scope. The Department of Education said the only violations that could be considered as part of the complaint process were those that occurred within one year of the complaint being filed.

Gov. Terry Branstad's spokesman, Tim Albrecht, declined to comment on the matter, saying the governor's office would need to see the specifics of the complaint first.

Branstad on Monday expressed his full support for Charles Palmer, the director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, which runs the home. Branstad said his liaison to DHS, Michael Bousselot, "has assured me the department has taken the appropriate action to prevent these kinds of things from happening in the future. I don't try to micro-manage departments and agencies."

Palmer and the home's interim superintendent, Mark Day, said they haven't looked into how many youths were kept in isolation in recent years, or for how long. So the full scope of the practice — and the state's potential liability — remains unknown.

Kirstein said he returned to the home with another investigator on Tuesday to continue looking into practices there. He disputed the Department of Human Services' stance that it has addressed the problems.

"There are significant changes that still need to occur," said Kirstein. "There still is no independent body or government agency that oversees what DHS is doing at this facility. This is not the end. It's only the beginning."