ELDORA — When Central Iowa Juvenile Detention Center Director Tony Reed first started working at the facility in 1994, it served six member counties with six beds and six staffers. It’s safe to say a few things have changed since then.
Almost 30 years later, the CIJDC, which is now the largest detention center in the state, has grown to serve 31 member counties — Marshall County was actually the first addition in February of 1994 — 20 affiliate counties, a few others on contract and even one person staying from out of state, with 60 beds and 140 total employees across the state with about 40 at the Eldora facility. Its footprint is about to expand even further with a $7.5 million, 20-bed expansion set for completion by the end of November.
The biggest benefit, according to Reed, is simply the space, which will allow kids to spread out more and minimize violent confrontations.
“It’ll reduce the number of incidents we have on a daily basis,” he said. “That was the main crux of this facility. We don’t need more beds, but some of the beds we have now are two in a room. This gives us the ability to spread kids out.”
As Reed explained, the creation of the CIJDC coincided with a national push to get kids out of jails and specific instructions from the federal government to states at the time to help facilitate that transition. Because of the “get tough on crime” mantra of that era, many kids were brought to the center for low-level offenses and were out within a few days.
Gradually, low-level offenders were moved out of detention, so instead, the CIJDC has seen more long-term stays and individuals charged with more serious crimes, some of whom have already failed out of residential treatment centers. The cases are all pre-adjudication, so as Reed put it, they come to CIJDC “before they go elsewhere.”
“Once they’ve failed one residential treatment, the next one doesn’t want that kid because they’re difficult, so then they sit here. And we’ll have kids that’ll sit here for 90 days just waiting for a spot to go. That’s the biggest change we’ve seen,” Reed said. “There really is no failing out of here. You’re just kind of stuck here, and this isn’t a means to an end. This is a transitional place.”
Unsurprisingly, the kids who end up at CIJDC are facing more mental health issues than staff members have ever seen in the past. Reed said they used to average around a third of a bottle of medication per kid, and the number is now around 2 ½ bottles per kid. On the day he was interviewed last week, Reed had 44 kids staying at the facility, but he said the average is usually closer to 35.
Because of confidentiality rules and the fact that “the juvenile system doesn’t work well with the adult system” in Iowa, Reed said it can be difficult to gauge success as it relates to recidivism and how many of the kids are able to avoid ending up in prison as adults.
Marshall County Board of Supervisors Chairman Dave Thompson has served on the CIJDC board throughout his tenure — he’s been chair of the CIJDC board for most of those years — and as he prepares to leave the board of supervisors at the end of 2022, he reflected on his involvement in overseeing juvenile detention as some of the most important and rewarding work he’s done during his career as an elected official.
“I am not a partisan individual. Never once in all the years I’ve been in our board meetings has anyone said ‘I’m a Republican,’ ‘I’m a Democrat,'” Thompson said. “It’s not done in a partisan way. We run this organization as close to a business as a government entity can do, which is also near and dear to my heart. But primarily, we understand that our mission is for the kids, so it’s very rewarding to see if we can try and make a difference in these kids’ lives. It’s very rewarding to work with some phenomenal other individuals who have been county supervisors from across the state and have given me some tremendous perspective.”
The opportunity to testify before the state legislature and explain the issues important to CIJDC has also been a highlight for Thompson, and he still hopes to see further reforms in the funding formula that would result in more equitable reimbursements. Currently, the Polk County center receives twice as much reimbursement as the CIJDC on a yearly basis.
Additionally, Thompson is excited about the expansion, which he sees as a major benefit for the safety of children and staff. He’s been particularly proud of some of the services offered in Eldora that aren’t available at other similar centers — counseling, state drug testing and juvenile and mental health transports, to name a few — that save taxpayers money in the process.
“All of these other things that we do bring revenue into the center, which allows us to keep our detention rates down,” Thompson said. “So that same child that we send here from Marshalltown, from Marshall County pays less than half of what we would pay for that same child if we sent them to a county-run facility like Polk County or Linn County.”
Due to a confluence of factors — chief among them, the sheer length of stays in the modern era — the financial commitment of member counties has increased substantially. It was about $60,000 annually when Thompson was first elected in 2010, and he predicts that next year, the number will surpass $200,000. On top of that, while the state is supposed to cover up to 50 percent of detention expenses, at CIJDC, the figure is closer to 10 percent.
Both Thompson and Reed agreed that the kids they deal with today are more violent than in the past, and as a snapshot of the active juvenile count from the end of August showed, they have ended up at CIJDC for crimes as serious as first degree murder, attempted murder, sexual assault, first degree robbery, first degree burglary and first degree kidnapping. Through the end of August, Marshall County had the single most year to date bed days of any member county at 391 (12 juveniles from the county spent 175 bed days at CIJDC in that month alone), and Webster County wasn’t far behind at 352.
A major drop in the number of kids at the Boys State Training School just down the road has also resulted in more of them winding up at the detention center.
Recruiting staff members in the modern workforce environment is especially difficult at the CIJDC because of the stress of the job and the potential of being assaulted by the kids. Thompson shared the story of a long-term staff member who left the facility for a much lower paying custodial job for those exact reasons.
“I have a huge amount of respect for our staff because they work in an environment that’s very difficult, and what they take home with them at night is unreal,” Thompson said. “Some of the kids that are in here, they think nothing about beating the heck out of a fellow kid or one of our staff members.”
Reed echoed those frustrations and admitted that it’s hard to blame staffers for taking easier jobs with similar pay and benefits outside of the CIJDC. Currently, at least a third of the staff has been there less than a year.
“The job isn’t for everybody,” he said. “The skill levels that we need are high. The educational requirements are high, so the people that we hire are extremely marketable. And they can go a lot of places and get a job, and that works to our detriment, definitely.”
The struggles the leaders at the CIJDC confront on a daily basis won’t be magically disappearing anytime soon, but Reed and Thompson will continue to make the case for more funding to state legislators and governing bodies like DHS.
“More people have listened, but absolutely nothing has changed. That’s the frustrating part,” Reed said.
Contact Robert Maharry
at 641-753-6611 ext. 255 or
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