Managers at state-run center for disabled Iowans directed public funds for lubricants, pornographic photos, suit claims

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The top officials at a state-run institution for people with severe disabilities directed the purchase of sexual lubricants, silk sheets or boxers and pornographic images in preparation to study patients’ sexual arousal, according to a new lawsuit filed by former employees at the facility.

The lawsuit, filed Monday by six former employees at the Glenwood Resource Center, claims former Glenwood Superintendent Jerry Rea and other managers purchased a dedicated computer, software program and joystick for the sole purpose of sexual arousal research at the facility.

The former employees, who include former Glenwood center doctors and top administrators, further claim in a 37-page lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa that the medically fragile patients’ medications were changed to prepare for the study.

“They intended to use, and did use, highly vulnerable GRC patients as the ‘guinea pigs’ in research experiments,” the suit says.

The lawsuit was filed in the midst of an ongoing federal investigation into the Glenwood Resource Center. The U.S. Department of Justice alerted state officials late last year that it is investigating whether patients’ rights were violated.

The suit claims that the facility’s administrators failed to “obtain informed consent” from the patients’ guardians “prior to beginning research.”

“Defendants were forced to later scramble to get consent on behalf of patients that had been experimented on after receiving notice of a new Department of Justice investigation of GRC in 2019,” it says.

The center includes residential homes for patients with severe intellectual disabilities. Many of the roughly 200 residents, who often can’t speak, walk or feed themselves, also have a dual diagnosis of mental illness.

The Iowa Department of Human Services, which oversees the Glenwood Center, is conducting its own inquiry into allegations of wrongdoing. It held separate town halls this month with patients’ families and center staff.

The suit claims that the administration’s actions led to a decline in the quality of care at the facility, and an increase in patient deaths.

In a general statement in response to the lawsuit’s specific allegations, DHS spokesman Matt Highland said: “The Department is not going to comment on pending litigation, but DHS is committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of those we serve and our employees. We continue to take all necessary action to address all allegations.”

Defendants named in their official and individual capacities are: Jerry Foxhoven, the former director of the Iowa Department of Human Services who was ousted in June 2019; Richard Shults, a DHS administrator who retired last month; Jerry Rea, the ex-superintendent at the Glenwood center; and Mohammad Rehman, the center’s current medical director. The suit also names the Glenwood Resource Center and the Iowa Department of Human Services as defendants. 

The plaintiffs are Kelly Brodie, who served in various management roles; Dr. John Heffron, a former physician; Kathy King, a former employee and current patient guardian; Dr. Michael Langenfeld, a former physician; Katherine Rall, director of quality management; and Jamie Shaw, a nurse practitioner. They all left or were forced out during Rea’s two years of running the center.

The lawsuit claims the defendants violated plaintiffs’ civil rights, conspired to violate those rights, wrongfully terminated the plaintiffs, violated Iowa’s whistleblower law and interfered with physician-patient relationships.

The lawsuit seeks punitive damages as well as damages in an amount “that will fairly and justly compensate Plaintiffs for the violation of their civil rights, mental anguish, pain and suffering, lost earnings and benefits and damage to their reputations.”

Alleged retaliation and reprisals

The former employees claim the managers schemed to “creatively destroy” the health care system designed to protect patients at the center. That included excluding the now-former workers from planning meetings and removing care standards designed after the Justice Department investigated the institution about 20 years ago.

The former employees said they brought their complaints to various state officials, but top managers — including Rea, the recently ousted superintendent — conspired to silence, punish and retaliate against the workers over several years in some cases, according to the lawsuit.

“Each of the plaintiffs was exposed to a toxic and hostile work environment, suffered repeated public humiliation, loud and personal disparagement, and professional embarrassment,” the suit says. The alleged actions, according to the lawsuit, “not only caused severe financial and reputational harm and emotional distress to Plaintiffs, but also recklessly endangered the health and well-being of the State’s most vulnerable citizens.”

The former employees claim that over a period of time, they were systematically removed after they complained about treatment decisions at the center.

Last spring, a Des Moines Register investigation showed Glenwood employees repeatedly warned state officials that medical care at the center had dangerously eroded. Fourteen severely disabled residents died there between June 2018 and April 2019, more than double the usual rate.

The lawsuit claims that Rea and Rehman, the ex-superintendent and current medical director, instituted policies, against the judgment of doctors, that were aimed at limiting the number of prescription medicines given to patients.

“After Plaintiffs were forced out of (the Glenwood center), the quality of care severely declined because of the new facility leadership and its director of medical care, and the rate of deaths and other adverse events for (Glenwood center) patients increased significantly.”

Governor Kim Reynolds discusses some of what the state has done and plans to do at the Glenwood Resource Center. 

Focus on sexual arousal research

The Justice Department is investigating allegations of human experimentation at the Glenwood Resource Center that includes sexual arousal studies and hydration studies.

The lawsuit highlights that Rea, the former superintendent at the center, had a long-standing interest in sexual behavior studies. An old bio page noted that he studied “assessment and treatment of deviant sexual behavior in persons with developmental and intellectual disabilities.”

According to the ex-workers, the top managers named in the lawsuit sought to transform the Glenwood center into a research facility that advanced Rea’s interest in clinical research involving sexual arousal and sexual deviancy.

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’s website.

The lawsuit claims top managers directed that patients’ medications be changed for their participation in research activities, including the level of dopamine given to patients — but that the change put patients at risk because some require an array of carefully calibrated medications.

In at least one instance described in the lawsuit, the interference with patient medication caused seizures and behavior that were later used to justify an increased use of physical restraints that were contrary to federal standards established for the center.

At one point, according to the lawsuit, top managers directed that public funds be used to buy “silk sheets or silk boxer shorts,” sexual lubricants and “stock photos which included pornographic images” as part of plans for sexual arousal research on patients.

The “plaintiffs … were vocal in their opposition to Defendants’ outlandish schemes and unlawful actions,” the suit says.

State-funded home improvements

The lawsuit also alleges that when Rea came to the Glenwood center in September 2017, he spent about $60,000 in state funds to completely renovate the house provided to him as part of his job.

“In doing so, Defendant Rea diverted the entire maintenance team from their regular GRC duties, which included maintaining safe, sanitary and habitable homes and grounds for GRC’s vulnerable patients for more than two months,” the suit says.

Rea was placed on leave amid the federal and state investigations in early December. He was permitted to stay in his campus residence during that time, although his access to the facility’s secure buildings was also taken away.

Rea was fired from his role at the end of December and given 30 days to vacate his Glenwood home.

“This action is being taken as a result of a mounting list of disregard for policies and procedures,” according to his termination letter, which was signed by Shults.