DES MOINES, Iowa – Iowa leaders say the state needs to address complaints of inequities in the juvenile justice system, which were highlighted by the case of Pieper Lewis.
A lack of resources for girls within the system was brought to light during Lewis’ trial for killing a man she said raped her repeatedly when she was 15-years-old. Her attorney said she didn’t get the same help that is offered to at-risk boys in the state.
“And that is because of her gender right?,” said Lewis’ attorney.
“Yes,” said a juvenile court officer.
So if you are a boy age 15, the state of Iowa is going to treat you differently than a 15- year-old girl, right? And that’s a function of her gender,” said Lewis’ attorney.
How has Pieper been treated unfairly by the state due to her age and circumstances?
Her attorney was asking for leniency, in part, because of a lack of resources and inequalities in the juvenile justice system. What are those inequalities?
The Iowa State Training School houses all the high risk, (charged with a violent crime) juvenile boys in the state, which is funded by the state. But it’s girl counterpart, the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo closed down in 2014. It was the only state-funded facility available for girls. If the facility was open Pieper would have been in this facility that was properly equipped to handle her specific needs. Since it’s closure there is elevated pressure on juvenile court officers to assign this category of girls to proper facilities.
“Juvenile court does everything they can. They do a great job of trying to look outside the box,” said Dan Larson, the program administrator at the Polk County Juvenile Detention Center.
The Iowa Task Force for Young Women is made of state leaders who examine how the state’s department of Human Services can more efficiently provide resources for these girls. And they submit that yearly report every year.
In their most recent study in 2021 the task force found the state had 25 girls who qualified as high risk and would be in a state facility if one was open. These resources for these girls have been decreasing over the years according to the task force.
“I’ve seen the decline, I’ve seen the reduction, I’ve seen the elimination of services that are for girls. And so girls are hurting at every stage of the system,” said Jennifer Tibbets, the chair of the Iowa Task Force for Young Women.
The issue is highlighted through the “Talking Wall”, a tool the task force uses in their yearly report to show what these deep end girls need equal access too.
“We talk to them in small groups and ask them basic questions. And it is called the talkig wall because there’s a of easel paper on the wall and they have post-its and they write on them and put them up on the wall,” said Steve Michael, the division administrator for the Division of Criminal & Juvenile Justice Planning in the Department of Human Rights.
These youth in the system say the need, “Better tampons (Not cardboard)”, “Programs to help single moms”, “Teach puberty if you don’t have a mom, who do you go to?”, “Consider hair care needs”, “clothes”, “a financial support system and therapy”, “support systems that are heathy and not enforced”, and the list goes on and on. The task force says that it’s not just a lack of services, but services that are catered towards females.
“Putting girls into a service like that, (aggression replacement training), it may exist in an area were girls can have that service, but all the research and everything around it is geared towards that works for a boy. So just because a service exists doesn’t mean it works well for a girl,” said Kathy Nesteby, an executive officer for the Division of Criminal & Juvenile Justice Planning in the Department of Human Rights.
The Polk County Juvenile Detention Center is one of the bigger county facilities in the state. They have recreational facilities for the teens, educational materials, classrooms and libraries. But Larson knows that they still don’t have all the services these girls require.
“We have medical services here. But again we are not a treatment facility so we have to stay in our lane working with that type of situation,” said Larson.
And other facilities in the state are having the same issue.
“If you were to call up any of the nine now detention directors in the state I am convinced that they would al tell you that they are concerned with the amount of time the youth are spending camped out in their facilities,” said Nesteby.
Part of the problem for the lack of services is the low number of these high risk juveniles in the state, but the number of girls is slowly increasing along with their time of stay. And with no state facility for high risk girls, the county facilities must hold these girls for longer periods of time.
“There are a good percentage of girls that are staying there for longer than six months,” said Tibbets.
What are some of the solutions detention center directors see?
“We do need some type of state training school. I know that’s kind of a term people don’t want to use but we need something like that, that will not kick girls out,” said Larson. “…I know that the state does have that money.”
In their 2021 report the task force recommended ways to the DHS that it could solve these issues. That included alternatives for detention centers, having girls spend less time in temporary facilities, stop sending these girls to adult court and stop sending them out of state.
The Iowa Department of Human Services did not respond for comment on this story when WHO 13 News reached out several times last Fall.
You can find more Special Reports from WHO 13 here.