DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Few details are being released about an investigation conducted by civil rights officials from the U.S. Department of Justice into possible human experiments focused on sexual arousal at a state-run Iowa institution for disabled residents, but Gov. Kim Reynolds recently acknowledged that the state’s response to long-term issues at Glenwood Resource Center was inadequate.
The current investigation, first reported by the Des Moines Register, includes concerns that residents with a range of developmental and physical disabilities have been the subject of experiments.
The state learned of the federal investigation of Glenwood Resource Center and the Woodward Resource Center in a Nov. 21 letter to state officials including Reynolds, the attorney general and the federal prosecutor in Des Moines.
The letter is signed by Eric Dreiband, an assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.
It says the investigation is focusing on whether the state is violating the federal rights of Glenwood residents by placing them at risk with “harmful and uncontrolled human subject experiments, inadequate medical and nursing care, physical and nutritional management and behavioral health care.” Investigators also will look at whether there have been needless and harmful restraint practices and incidents causing needless physical injury.
The Glenwood center is 145 miles (233.35 kilometers) southwest of Des Moines and cares for about 250 individuals with intellectual disabilities.
Woodward serves a similar population of about 180 patients and is 31 miles (49.89 kilometers) north of Des Moines. The investigation there appears to focus on whether individuals are placed in the most integrated setting appropriate, a requirement of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The investigation is conducted by the civil rights division and the federal prosecutor’s office in Des Moines, the letter said.
The two facilities are operated by the Iowa Department of Human Services, an agency which has experienced turmoil in recent years, including accusations of improper restraint use at juvenile facilities and an unusually high number of deaths at Glenwood, including 14 severely disabled residents who died between June 2018 and April 2019.
DHS has had three directors in three years.
Charles Palmer resigned amid controversy after two decades in June 2017 and Reynolds appointed Jerry Foxhoven to run the agency. She asked him to resign in June, citing only “many factors.” He has filed a $2 million claim for wrongful termination against the state.
The latest hire, Kelly Garcia, started work Nov. 1, just 20 days before the agency received the letter that is was under investigation.
Reynolds said Garcia placed Jerry Rea, the superintendent at Glenwood for the past two years, on paid administrative leave.
Rea, once an adjunct assistant research professor at University of Kansas, has published multiple research papers on sexual behavior involving individuals with intellectual disabilities, including one he presented last year at an annual conference in Omaha of the Heartland Association for Behavior Analysis. It was about assessing sexual thoughts and arousal in men with intellectual disabilities who had committed sexual offenses using a device called a portable-penile plethysmograph.
Rea is listed as the co-inventor of a device patented in 1998 designed to detect and monitor “the sexual arousal of an individual while the individual is exposed to real-life sexual stimuli outside of a clinical or laboratory setting.”
DHS spokesman Matt Highland confirmed to the Register that sexual arousal studies were among the issues under investigation but declined to say more. He did not comment on Monday.
Reynolds acknowledged to reporters last week that actions to improve care at the Glenwood center haven’t been enough.
“There has been some continuous review, but we found out that it’s not satisfactory,” she said. “It is not acceptable, it is not adequate, and we are making changes.”
Garcia has visited Glenwood to assess the situation and sent a team to investigate, Reynolds said. Reynolds said she’s optimistic Garcia will improve DHS operations.
Dreiband said in his letter to the governor that the state will be notified in writing if violations of law are found with minimum requirements needed to remedy them. He said most local and state agencies have been able to cure the problems without litigation.