DES MOINES, IOWA — Pieper Lewis had her sentence deferred one week ago, and during the sentencing trial the disparity between facilities between high risk juvenile girls and boys was highlighted.
“And that’s because of her gender,” said Matt Sheeley, Lewis’ Public Defender, while questioning a judicial 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,” said Whitney Buchanan, a judicial court officer in the 5th Judicial District of Iowa.
High risk juveniles are defined as children in the system who are either high needs, high risk chronic offenders or potentially charged with serious violent delinquent acts in the state. Pieper Lewis falls under that category. For high risk juvenile boys, the state has the Iowa State Training School in Eldora. The Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo closed in 2014, where it housed primarily high risk juvenile girls.
Pieper Lewis is currently held at the Polk County Juvenile Detention Center. Detention centers are supposed to act as a short stay for juveniles until permanent housing is found.
“93% of those girls who fit within that cohort were spending more than 30 days in juvenile detention, and that approximately 32% of them were spending more than 180 days in detention, which is beyond average,” said Nickole Miller, the Director of the Children’s Rights clinic at Drake Law School. “The average days for girls who are in the juvenile justice system is about 19 to 20 days. So we are seeing that the girls who have the highest risk and the highest needs are being placed in a level of care that is not responsive.”
Miller is apart of the Iowa Task Force for Young Women as well. The task force is made up of women from all around the state holding certain position in government entities or academia. The task force has made recommendations in the past to the Iowa Department of Human Services about what needs to be done for high risk juvenile girls.
“I can tell you about what I’ve learned from my participation in the task force,” said Miller. “What we really need to be looking at is how we can create a model that is gender responsive and trauma informed. That’s culturally competent while still providing that kind of structure, supervision and safety that we need to get these girls so they can rehabilitate and be contributing members to society.”
Detention centers do provide some level of therapy services that are needed based on the specific child. But Miller believes that there need to be something more permanent for these juvenile girls. She outlined some basic resources that juvenile girls, in some cases, have complained about a lack of access.
“A common refrain that we are hearing from young girls is they are not getting access to tampons in detention. They are not getting access to the types of lotions that they need to not have rashes, or to be able to deal with the basic things that a young girl might want to have,” said Miller.
There are more high risk juvenile boys in the state than girls. which Miller estimates there are 25 or so high risk juvenile girls that would meet the criteria to be in a state training school.
WHO 13 News reached out to the Iowa Department of Human Services for a comment on what problems there are for juvenile girls in the state, the department did not respond.