The federal government is investigating allegations of "sexual arousal studies" and other human subject experiments being conducted at a state institution where people with severe intellectual disabilities receive care, according to the Iowa Department of Human Services.
Matt Highland, spokesman at the state agency, told the Des Moines Register that part of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the Glenwood Resource Center is related to such studies. He declined to specify more about what that means.
"The DOJ investigation of Glenwood Resource Center related to ‘human subject experiments’ is focused on ‘optimal hydration’ under the ‘Perfect Care Index,’ and ‘sexual arousal studies.’ While we are still gathering the facts, we will investigate and address every allegation," Highland said in a statement.
Highland added: "When we have all of the facts and the time is appropriate, the Department will share all of the information we are able to with the Governor’s office, the legislature, stakeholders and family members. The Department looks forward to an open dialog, to building trust through transparency and ensuring this never happens again."
The Justice Department alerted Iowa officials in November that it is investigating the Glenwood Resource Center for potential rights violations, including an allegation involving "harmful and uncontrolled human subject experiments."
Highland said the sexual arousal study allegation is part of the investigation, as is a study of pneumonia prevention, which he referred to as the 'optimal hydration'-focused study.
"I want to make sure we’re doing everything that we can to protect the health and safety of the residents at the Glenwood Resource Center," Gov. Kim Reynolds said when asked about the Glenwood center at an unrelated news conference Wednesday.
The Glenwood center, 20 miles from Omaha in southwest Iowa, provides care to about 250 individuals with intellectual disabilities, according to a state website. The residents there often are medically fragile. Some have lived there for decades, and many can’t speak, walk or feed themselves.
Jerry Rea, the superintendent at Glenwood, was placed on paid administrative leave Monday, state officials and others told the Register. The state has released limited information about Rea's leave.
Before her department confirmed the nature of the studies, Iowa DHS Director Kelly Garcia told the state's Council on Human Services on Wednesday morning that Rea was placed on leave because of “additional information that we learned.”
“It is a personnel investigation, so I can’t give you much more information than that,” Garcia told the council. “But it is due to the seriousness of the allegations.”
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Before Rea was hired to lead Glenwood in 2017, he worked at a similar treatment facility in Parsons, Kansas. In a bio page that showed Rea's areas of interest, it listed “assessment and treatment of deviant sexual behavior in persons with developmental and intellectual disabilities.”
Rea patented "an apparatus for detecting and monitoring the sexual arousal of an individual" more than 20 years ago, according to the bio and information on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Rea did not respond to a message left for him Wednesday at a work number. A cellphone he's previously used was answered by Marsha Edgington, who will serve in Rea’s place at Glenwood in the interim. Edgington, who is the superintendent at the state-run Woodward Resource Center, directed questions back to Highland.
Jane Hudson, executive director of Disability Rights Iowa, a federally supported advocacy group that seeks to protect the rights of people with disabilities, told the Register that she spoke with Garcia on Wednesday.
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During that conversation, after the council meeting where the Justice Department investigation arose, Garcia told her that the federal inquiry involved experiments regarding "sexual arousal," Hudson said. Highland confirmed that Hudson and Garcia spoke Wednesday.
"We're extremely concerned," said Hudson, who said she wants the Department of Human Services to be more forthcoming with information.
"This is care and treatment of vulnerable people with intellectual disabilities," Hudson said. "And it's the oversight issue. We've never felt that DHS has enough oversight of these facilities."
Sybil Finken, who has an adult son at Glenwood and is a guardian to another man, and Kathy King, who is a guardian for another patient at the center, said they have never been contacted for their consent to any human experimentation.
Reynolds, a Republican, said the Glenwood facility has been under "continuous review," given a series of problems.
"Based on the information that we just received, based on the leadership of the Department of Human Services, we – it is not acceptable. It is not adequate. And we are making changes," the governor said. "There are so many opportunities for us to do a better job."
The Justice Department is investigating whether the state of Iowa engages “in a pattern or practice of violating the federal rights of” Iowans with disabilities at Glenwood “by placing them at serious risk of harm.”
That harm investigation involves not only human experimentation but also: “inadequate medical and nursing care, physical and nutritional management, and behavioral health care,” “needless and harmful restraint practices” and “incidents causing needless physical injury,” according to a Nov. 21 letter from an assistant U.S. attorney general to Reynolds.
The Department of Justice visited Glenwood on Friday, and they will be returning in about six weeks, Garcia told Iowa's Council on Human Services on Wednesday.
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DHS is also conducting a "fact-finding" inquiry into the allegations at the Glenwood facility.
"Upon receiving the letter from the DOJ, Director Garcia has done a phenomenal job. She sent a team down to do a fact-finding mission to start to gather information," Reynolds said.
Reynolds' spokesman, Pat Garrett, said three doctors and a nurse went to Glenwood as part of the state's inquiry.
Employees at Glenwood told the Des Moines Register this spring that they repeatedly warned state officials that medical care at the facility had dangerously eroded. Fourteen severely disabled residents died there between June 2018 and April 2019 – more than twice the usual rate, according to a Register investigation. Seven of those deaths occurred in the first three months of 2019.
Last week, Highland confirmed to the Register that three people for whom Glenwood provided care had died in the past eight weeks.
Follow Barbara Rodriguez on Twitter: @bcrodriguez.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Feds investigate Iowa care center for alleged 'sexual arousal studies'