Four Democrats in the legislature and the president of a union that represents state workers have filed a lawsuit challenging Governor Terry Branstad’s decision to close the state facility for troubled teens. AFSCME Council 61 president Danny Homan leads the union that represents some of the front-line workers at the home.
“This lawsuit is all about the governor, in our opinion, illegally closing down the Iowa Juvenile Home at Toledo,” Homan says.
Branstad has ordered state officials to transfer the 21 teenage girls at the facility to privately run homes. Homan says last spring the legislature and the governor agreed on a budget plan that provides two years’ worth of funding for the home.
“We don’t believe he has the authority to shut it down and take the money and use it for other purposes,” Homan says, “much like in the IWD office closure case.”
Homan was part of a lawsuit a few years ago that successfully challenged Branstad’s authority to close dozens of Iowa Workforce Development offices, despite the legislature’s decision to set aside money in the budget to keep those offices open.
Earlier this year a watchdog organization known as Disability Rights Iowa raised concerns about how teenagers were being treated at the Iowa Juvenile Home. They cited instances in which some girls were kept in isolation cells for months at a time and blew the whistle because education was withheld from some teens as punishment. Branstad has blamed union work rules for some of the problems found at the home. Homan disputes the idea the home needs to be closed.
“Under this governor’s watch, there was a superintendent of the Toledo Juvenile Home who did some very, very, very bad things and created a very, very, very bad work environment,” Homan says. “Under the leadership of Mark Day, all that has been turned around.”
Under past practice, girls between the ages of 12 and 18 with significant behavior issues could be placed at the State Training School for Girls in Toledo for intense supervision. Branstad ordered the home closed for good in November, but the lawsuit is asking a judge to issue a temporary injunction to keep it open. Homan says placing all troubled teens in privately run homes isn’t the answer.
“There are nightmares upon nightmares of stories from other states where states have turned over the states’ kids to private sector entities and have paid atrocious amounts…and all kinds of things,” Homan says. “I don’t think we want that here in Iowa.”
A spokesman for the governor says Branstad has not seen the lawsuit yet and, therefore, will not comment on it. The two Democratic senators who signed onto the lawsuit are Jack Hatch, a Des Moines senator who is running for governor himself, as well as Steve Sodders of State Center, who represents Toledo. The two Democrats from the Iowa House who’ve joined the suit are House Democratic Leader Mark Smith of Marshalltown and former House Speaker Pat Murphy of Dubuque. Murphy is a 2014 congressional candidate who has the backing of AFSCME in his primary race against a handful of other Democrats.