Federal prosecutors are investigating whether harmful experiments on hydration and sexual arousal were carried out on people at a state-run home for Iowans with disabilities.
The Justice Department investigation of the Glenwood Resource Center in western Iowa, which revived long-standing questions about the care of some of Iowa’s most vulnerable people, comes after years of alarming news about the facility.
In 2017, state regulators found a pattern of suspicious injuries and a failure to report allegations of possible abuse and mistreatment. Earlier this year, the Des Moines Register reported that 14 severely disabled residents of the center died between June 2018 and April 2019, more than twice the usual rate of deaths there. Three more residents of the center, which is home to about 200 people, have died in the past eight weeks, state officials said.
“It is not acceptable, it is not adequate, and we are making changes,” Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, told reporters last week.
News of the Justice Department investigation, described in a November letter and previously reported by the Register, has rocked state government.
The Glenwood center’s superintendent, Dr. Jerry Rea, was placed on administrative leave this month, and officials said more changes are possible. Rea, who at another job listed as a research interest “deviant sexual behavior in persons with developmental disabilities,” did not respond to an e-mail requesting comment.
It was unclear exactly what led federal authorities to investigate the possibility that human experiments were taking place inside the center. A spokeswoman for the Justice Department declined to comment, and the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS), which runs the Glenwood center, provided limited information about the investigation’s scope.
But a letter sent last month to Reynolds by Eric Dreiband, an assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said federal officials were looking into “whether the state of Iowa engages in a pattern or practice of violating the federal rights of residents” by providing them inadequate medical care, allowing unnecessary injuries to occur and subjecting them to “harmful and uncontrolled human subject experiments.”
“We have not reached any conclusions about the subject matters of the investigation,” Dreiband wrote.
A spokesman for the Iowa DHS said federal officials were investigating studies related to “ ‘optimal hydration’ under the ‘Perfect Care Index,’ and ‘sexual arousal studies.’ ” The Perfect Care Index is a metric sometimes used in the medical community to evaluate the outcomes and efficiency of a treatment.
“While we are still gathering the facts, we will investigate and address every allegation,” said the spokesman, Matt Highland. He added that the department looked forward to “an open dialogue, to building trust through transparency and ensuring this never happens again.”
Reynolds’ office said medical staff from the University of Iowa would be visiting the Glenwood center to review residents’ health and medical treatment.
Although the details of the studies being investigated were unknown, it was not clear whether residents of the Glenwood facility would have been able to agree to take part in research. Residents of the center often have “behavioral or medical conditions that are complex and chronic,” a state website said.
Residential treatment centers for the disabled have fallen out of favor in recent decades. Instead, states have tried to move as many people as possible into group homes and other settings in their communities.
Doug Cunningham, executive director of the Arc of Iowa, an organization that supports people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said Glenwood had long been seen as a “place of last resort.” He said that the series of problems at Glenwood underscored the reasons for phasing out such centers and that there was no context under which residents there should have been experimented on.
“To subject people with severe intellectual disabilities to this type of treatment is absolutely appalling and cannot be tolerated,” Cunningham said.