Friday, December 20, 2013

The Iowa Juvenile Home: It takes a village...

From Toledo, IA
Town hall meeting at South Tama High School gym; Dec. 19, 2013
Just over a week ago, it was announced by the Iowa Governor's office and the Dept. of Human Services that the Iowa Juvenile Home and Girls Training School (IJH) here in Toledo would be closing on January 16, 2014. The IJH has been a staple of the local community for nearly a century and has served over the years as a state care facility for some of Iowa's most troubled youth, coming from some of the most dysfunctional family circumstances imaginable.

The news of IJH's closing was a huge blow to the local Tama-Toledo community. In a very short period of time, concerned staff, citizens, and elected representatives sprang into action in ways that have been inspiring to me, a relative newcomer to the community. A Facebook group was created as a way to organize support to protest the facility's closing. It now has over 9,000 members. Flowing from that online effort and the amazing support it received, a town hall meeting was organized and carried out last night at the local public high school gymnasium. So my friend Travis, a local councilman, picked me up at about 6:45pm last night and we attended the nearly 2.5 hour event. I went with my camera and notepad to do a little citizen journalism...

Rev. Laverne Seth
The event was very well-organized, well-attended, informative, and impassioned. Though there were clear "bad guys" mentioned throughout the night, the tone of the rhetoric was civil, informed, and frank. This in itself was inspiring. The event was opened and closed with prayer by two local ministers I've come to know and love, one of whom has been going to the IJH most Saturday nights for decades. (The highly active nonagenarian pictured to the left that everyone here including the local Catholic priest calls a "saint.")

The program included a long list of selected speakers that ranged from current and former IJH staff and administrators; teachers; local business people; community volunteers; but most importantly - former clients of the IJH. These women - ranging from their late teens to forties - gave powerful testimonies about their time at the home.

Rather than focus on all the political intrigue surrounding the closing of the IJH, or the negative media coverage the home has garnered in the past months - I rather want this piece to reflect what struck me most about the women's testimonies and the overall spirit of the town hall meeting. And that is:
  1. The importance of a community of care that the women often named as "family," and
  2. How the IJH was the only place they had experienced such a thing and the lasting positive impact this had on them as human beings.
There were some identifiable patterns to the testimonies of former students/clients. First was the troubling family circumstances that most came out of - volatile home lives with many forms of abuse, and no outlets for coping besides self-harm, substance abuse, acting out, etc. To a person, the women expressed having absolutely no sense of self worth as human beings when they entered the home. Next was the stability and care shown to each of them by IJH staff; stability and care being things that many of them had never before experienced. Some even named that other facilities around the state failed to create the kind of nurturing environment that they found at IJH.


In a recent post, my friend John quoted Jean Vanier who had this to say about community:
community is the only earth in which each can grow without fear toward the liberation of the forces of love which are hidden in them. But there can be growth only if we recognize the potential, and this will never unfold if we prevent people from discovering and accepting themselves as they are, with their gifts and their wounds.
It seems to be the case that the IJH provided just this kind of environment. Such environments provide the "earth in which [they could] grow," to the point of being able to overcome fear-bound cycles of destructive behavior and underlying attitudes and beliefs about themselves. It was a place where they were able to discover both their wounds and their gifts. And each woman named these "moments of decision" coming at IJH; moments that would have been impossible for them to find absent such an environment.

But this cultivated sense of community did not stop at the edge of the grounds at IJH. As I said above, the home has been a staple of the Tama-Toledo community for nearly a century, and the relationship of the school to the host community has been an important part of the IJH's ability to care for the children there. The relationship was mutually beneficial.

A local retail manager talked about how giving jobs to the girls from the home has been such an important part of his work over the years, and how customers usually didn't know the difference between an IJH girl and a local public high school student. The vocational training folks at IJH admitted their work would have been much more difficult, pointless even, without concrete work opportunities that were provided in the wider community.

There were stories of children from the home having holiday meals with families in town, modeling to them what safe and secure home lives can look like. Some local residents have even legally adopted children from the home, raising them as their own.


There's a bit of wisdom out there that says "it takes a village to raise a child." What struck me last night is that not only has the IJH been that village for troubled youth in Iowa, but the Tama-Toledo community has been the host "village," and both villages are now in crisis at the prospect of the IJH closing. There's an economic impact, yes, but there's also a deeper blow, and that is to the sense of community belonging and identity. (The inseparability of community and economy being a topic I've recently written about.) A century-old institution suddenly vanishing from daily life here is like rashly cutting out an organ in a body. Who will we be if we don't do this important work?

So I worry about the future of all involved in this situation: the children currently served, those who could be well-served, the staff, the wider community, the people of Iowa. It's truly the case that there are many youth in Iowa who are suffering in incredibly, sometimes horrific family conditions. (My wife is a mental health worker in the community, and it's happening right here every day.) If the people of the state of Iowa agree that such children must be cared for, and cared for well - then it seems that for all its faults, the IJH and the Tama-Toledo community had a good thing going here. Could it have been better? Certainly; no institution is without its warts and bad habits. But is it worth shuttering? I'm starting to think not...

Perhaps the IJH as it stands today will not survive the current battle. But this community seems to know a thing or two about caring for troubled youth. Perhaps it should be considered part of our vocational calling as a community to provide such care. If any of this is true, I sincerely hope and pray that the people of Tama-Toledo, Tama County, and the wider region and state - can rally to make sure a facility that provides the intense level of care required for severely challenged youth can remain here.

May we be "the earth in which each can grow without fear toward the liberation of the forces of love." I saw such love last night, in the tears and embraces of IJH staff and former students. It's possible. Let's be that village...

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