DES MOINES - Former residents and employees of the Iowa Juvenile Home testified before a legislative panel Wednesday and urged lawmakers to support a measure that would force officials to reopen the facility that closed last week.
Workers testifying before the Senate Human Resources Committee told lawmakers they tried to create a safe environment for teens at the Toledo home, which closed Jan. 15.
Chelsea Reasoner, a resident from 2009 to 2011, said her stay at the home changed her life and motivated her to find full-time employment.
"The most important thing Iowa Juvenile Home taught me is compassion, and it is with compassion that I hope the decision regarding the Iowa Juvenile Home is made," she said.
The facility has been the center of controversy since last summer, when The Des Moines Register began publishing a series of stories about the extended use of isolation cells for teenagers and other questionable practices. Before being closed at the order of Gov. Terry Branstad, the home housed some of Iowa's most troubled girls.
Another former resident, Amber Opdahl, also supported the home.
"It is what you need, what you need to succeed, and what you need to graduate," said Opdahl, who was at the home from 1996 to 2000.
Todd Sprague, who was a youth services worker at the home from 2005 until the facility closed, also supported the home.
"Oftentimes, this is the first real family they have ever experienced," Sprague said.
Jamie Koster, who had taught at the home since 2006, acknowledged there were problems.
"Are improvements needed? Yes. But the state needs a facility for troubled youth," Koster said.
Jimmy Centers, a spokesman for Gov. Terry Branstad, said in a statement that the governor wants what's best for the teenagers previously held at the juvenile home and closed the facility after creating a task force and meeting with local officials.
Sen. Steve Sodders, D-State Center, was among those on the Senate panel. Sodders previously joined with three other Democratic lawmakers and the head of the state employees' union in filing a lawsuit against the governor and Iowa Department of Human Services Charles Palmer, seeking an injunction to prevent closure of the home.
"Instead of closing it down, we should have fixed those deficiencies," Sodders said.
Sodders said he'd consider recommendations to close the home as he considered possible legislation requiring that the facility be reopened.
"This is working with the executive branch and the Legislature to make this a home for these girls again," Sodders said.
Amy Lorentzen McCoy, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services, said in a statement that of the 21 teens formerly in the home, six have returned home, one has been placed in a youth shelter awaiting long-term placement and one has been sent to a detention center for delinquent youth. The rest have been placed in various state facilities and private providers, and all have been placed in Iowa, she said.
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