More than 100 people packed a Statehouse committee room Wednesday afternoon to hear the “other side of the story” behind the closing of the Iowa Juvenile Home and Girls Training School.
Former students told the Senate Human Resources Committee the Toledo school and staff provided them with a home and a family and the support, guidance and direction they needed to turn their lives around.
If not for the IJH, “I’d be in prison,” said Amber Opdahl, who is studying to be a nurse. She called the closing a mistake.
“It’s a sucky situation,” said Chelsea Reasoner, a child care worker in Des Moines, who spent about three years at Toledo during multiple placements.
“The staff truly treated us as if we were their own kids,” Reasoner told lawmakers. The staff “makes kids feel loved and wanted.”
Opdahl called on legislator to “stand up for the children who have no one else to stand up for them.”
Lawmakers were sympathetic toward them and ready to challenge what they called Gov. Terry Branstad’s “unilateral” decision to close the facility that had 21 students – less than half of its capacity – when the decision was made.
“What’s he thinking?” Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said about Branstad’s “colossal mistake” of closing the school. “What does he have against these girls?”
Branstad, according to his spokesman, Jimmy Centers, remains committed to “doing what is best for these vulnerable children.”
Citing allegations of abuse and prolonged isolation, the governor said he based his decision on recommendations by a task force. Centers also noted the task force met in public and Branstad has met with community leaders from Toledo, child welfare advocates and the Iowa Juvenile Home Protection Task Force members.
The recommendations have been implemented by the Department of Human Services “in the best interest of the children in an open and transparent manner.”
Toledo Mayor Dave Svoboda doesn’t think the decision was in the best interest of his community and its twin city of Tama, population 2,300 and 2,600, respectively. Not only does the closing mean the loss of 93 jobs, but businesses are “taking a drastic hit,” he said at the Capitol.
“We’re frustrated and disappointed in our leadership,” Svoboda said.
Toledo attorney Jim Roan, who testified against the closing of the home in the 1980s, was even blunter.
The governor and Department of Human Services have “cut the heart right out of our community,” he told senators.
And was a disservice to the girls who the home was supposed to help, according to Sen. Steve Sodders, D-State Center, who represents Toledo.
“They arrived at Toledo after many failings,” he said in a floor speech. However, the Juvenile Home “gave them a chance for a home … a place that wasn’t going to throw them out.”
However, that’s what the governor has done, Sodders charged.
Sodders called for bipartisan support for legislation to force the re-opening of the IJH.
“No one in this room got to make the decision” to close the home, he said. “One person made the decision.”
He’s also among the legislators who are suing that “one person” – Branstad -- to force the re-opening of the school. They’re joined by AFSCME, a public employee union representing the IJH employees.
Tuesday, the Iowa Attorney General’s Office asked the court to drop the lawsuit, claiming the plaintiffs have not established legal standing for their suit. Simply being taxpayers and legislators doesn’t meet the threshold established by courts, the attorney general argued. The attorney general also filed a resistance to the request for a temporary injunction to force the re-opening the home.
AFSCME and the lawmakers have 10 days to respond.