Writers from around Iowa City work on the short stories and novels at the Iowa City Public Library, in Iowa City on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. The Iowa City Public Library will be hosting meetings to for writers to celebrate National Novel Writing Month. (The Daily Iowan/Anthony Vazquez)

Armstrong: Young writers in Iowa’s juvenile diaspora




Refugees don’t always come from Syria or Sudan. In fact, an unrepresented segment of the Iowa population has been searching for a home since 2014.

Here’s the story. The Iowa Juvenile Home, a residential treatment facility founded in 1920, provided girls classified by the courts as delinquents as well as abandoned and abused children of both genders with age-appropriate care. The institution in Toledo, Iowa, closed in 2014 after misrepresentations in the press, complicated litigation, and resulting investigations by Gov. Terry Brandstad.

As a result, the kids once housed at the home needed places to stay. These “Children in Need of Assistance” were uprooted from one stable community and dispersed into already-crowded facilities in the surrounding areas. John McDonald Residential Treatment Facility in Monticello and North Village Residential Treatment Facility in Cedar Rapids, both run by Four Oaks, took on many of the Juvenile Home kids.

Fortunately for the scattered residents, an Iowa City nonprofit kept up with the kids. The Iowa Youth Writing Project fosters a unique partnership with the Four Oaks community to promote creativity, communication, and critical thinking. The programs run by the project, tailored in this case for at-risk youth who require both educational and expressive outlets, give residents crucial tools to use as they negotiate various difficult environments. Participants experience agency and empowerment through writing exercises; in weekly and monthly modules, the kids interact with positive mentors from the University of Iowa, hone their compositional and grammatical skills, and articulate their stories. With the assistance of the Writing Project, neglected kids can find their voices. The project thus spearheads a constructive educational initiative indispensable for growing minds stuck in cycles of trauma.

However, such programs are in jeopardy, and the kids aren’t coping well, either. In the years following the closure of the Juvenile Home, Writing Project volunteers and organizers faced challenging circumstances. Mallory Hellman, the project director, described the relocation shuffle as “a diaspora” that caused an unprecedented increase in population for the McDonald Facility and the North Village Facility, as well as a corresponding rise in behavioral issues for the kids.

“In the years that have followed, a rash of facilities closing, budget cuts, and staff cuts in residential treatment locations like [McDonald] has resulted in an even more tumultuous experience for the youth involved in these programs,” Hellman said. To make matters worse, McDonald and North Village still suffer from a low staff-to-resident ratio. It has become harder and harder to facilitate workshops with the youth — and funding is nowhere to be found.

The situation of resident treatment facilities is uncertain. A recent story in the Des Moines Register described future efforts to repurpose the former Juvenile Home location. None of the potential uses for the site include a new juvenile center. And yet, kids continue arriving at the Four Oaks institutions, greeted by fewer staff and less patience for exacerbated behavioral issues.

Now that the Juvenile Home no longer exists to house numerous young folks, capacity and care are the pertinent concerns. Consider the plight of these kids. They are unfit for the Iowa Department of Corrections center for adult felons, they are not welcome in out-of-state correctional institutions, and they aren’t receiving the constructive programming that might help them transcend the juvenile-correctional system altogether. Why has Iowa failed to provide its own diaspora victims with requisite accommodations?

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