Branstad defends DHS director and appeals to Iowa Supreme Court

This morning Governor Terry Branstad stood by Iowa Department of Human Services Director Chuck Palmer and his handling of problems at the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo (Tama County). He also spoke confidently about his appeal to Iowa Supreme Court against a Polk County District Court ruling ordering that the Iowa Juvenile Home be reopened.

More background and details are after the jump.  

O.Kay Henderson posted the audio from today’s press conference at Radio Iowa. The relevant passages begin around the 8:30 mark. Branstad defended the decision to close the Iowa Juvenile Home and criticized staff who, in his words, fostered a damaging “culture” at the institution. He asserted that his administration’s decisions were consistent with recommendations of a task force he appointed last year to review problems at the Iowa Juvenile Home. That task force did not recommend closing the home, however.

Democratic State Senator Steve Sodders, who represents the Toledo area, has called for Palmer to be fired as Department of Human Services director because of “mismanagement” of the Iowa Juvenile Home. But Branstad strongly defended Palmer’s work in what he called a very difficult job.

On Friday, the governor’s office confirmed that Branstad would appeal a Polk County District Court ruling ordering that the Iowa Juvenile Home be reopened. The Iowa Attorney General’s Office is representing the Branstad administration, and its filing to the Iowa Supreme Court asserts that the governor’s “duty to faithfully execute all laws of the State of Iowa” include “the entire statutory scheme of children adjudicated delinquent or in need of assistance,” based on “a single, overriding premise — the best interests of the children.”

A written statement from the governor’s office similarly tried to frame the legal issue in terms of what’s best for the children:

“The children were subjected to over 47,000 hours of isolation, denied the education they deserve and mistreated by staff. As chief executive, I have the responsibility to ensure the safety of Iowa’s most vulnerable. These children are now in licensed and accredited facilities where they are being better served, receiving the education they were denied at the Iowa Juvenile Home and the treatment and care they need.”

State Senator Jack Hatch is a Democratic candidate for governor and one of the plaintiffs in the latest lawsuit. He released this comment on Friday:

“It is unfortunate that instead of trying to work together with the legislature to reopen a facility that his own Department of Human Services Director admitted needs to exist, he has decided to fight his responsibilities in court. Repeatedly the Governor has said that his only concern is to do what is in the best interests of the children, however, the facts show otherwise. Several children that were housed at the Iowa Juvenile Home and were placed in other facilities are now missing and those that are responsible for tracking them have no idea where they are. These girls need a safe place and all Governor Branstad is doing right now is delaying protecting these kids. Iowans should not have to take their Governor to court in order to get him to follow the law.”

Around the 17:15 mark of today’s press conference, Branstad said he was “surprised and disappointed” that a lawsuit was filed to challenge the closure of the Iowa Juvenile Home. He expressed confidence that defendants will prevail when the Iowa Supreme Court reviews the merits of the case. He added that he did not know about the problems at the Iowa Juvenile Home until a series of Des Moines Register reports in July and August 2013–well after he signed the appropriations bill that provided funds for operating the home during the current fiscal year. In last week’s ruling, District Court Judge Scott Rosenberg said the governor could have vetoed funding for the Iowa Juvenile Home; having failed to do so, he was constitutionally obligated to abide by state law.

During today’s press conference, Branstad repeatedly asserted that children were ill-served at the Iowa Juvenile Home. But it’s not clear to me that the Iowa Supreme Court will take those factors into account when it considers the governor’s appeal. The lawsuit and the District Court ruling granting plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction are not about what is the best way to run the Iowa Juvenile Home. The issue is whether the governor and/or state officials acting on his behalf can ignore portions of an appropriations bill the governor signed into law. Based on the Iowa Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in 2012 regarding the governor’s efforts to close Iowa Workforce Development offices, I am skeptical that the justices will view the current situation the governor’s way.

Although some media reports have exposed troubling practices at the Iowa Juvenile Home, it’s not credible to claim that the DHS director’s only recourse was to close the facility. On the contrary, the task force Branstad appointed developed several recommendations short of shutting down the home. Branstad could have asked the Iowa House and Senate to revisit appropriations for running the Iowa Juvenile Home, but he chose not to do so. The Department of Human Services announced the Iowa Juvenile Home’s closure, laid off all its staff, and dispersed the remaining girls who had been living in Toledo before state lawmakers convened for the 2014 legislative session. I suspect Lynda Waddington is on the right track when she speculates that Branstad may have been motivated by a desire to privatize a state institution staffed by public union members. But even if he was acting solely to protect children living at the home, he could have tried to work with state lawmakers on a new plan. Instead, his DHS opted to ignore language passed by the legislature and signed into law by the governor.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

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