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As state institutions close, families of longtime residents face agonizing choices

Tony Leys, Kaiser Health News on

Published in News & Features

In the scandal’s wake, Iowa leaders assured residents’ families that they had no plans to close either of the state’s two institutions for people with disabilities. But the message abruptly changed in April, when state officials announced the Glenwood Resource Center would close. They cited the high cost of complying with federal expectations if it were to stay open.

The state and federal governments spend about $392,000 per resident annually at the institution.

Kelly Garcia, Iowa’s director of health and human services, said she understands that contemplating a move can be stressful for residents and their families. But she said Iowa clung too long to an outdated role for such institutions. “This notion that you are admitted at age 2 and you live 80 years there is no longer the way we as a society would want to support a human being,” she said.

Garcia said administrators are trying to arrange for longtime roommates and friends to stay together when they move out and for people to be placed near their families.

She said the state is committed to providing money and expertise to the private agencies that will support former Glenwood Resource Center residents. She noted the state has already helped such agencies raise wages so they can hire and retain caregivers. Those that take on clients with high needs could qualify for extra payments to make the transition, Garcia said.

Garcia said the state’s commitment is one reason more than 30 agencies showed up in July for a “provider fair” in the institution’s gym. Residents’ families and guardians met with private care providers and considered their options.

Crest Services, a residential care company for people with disabilities, sent representatives to the event. Director Bob Swigert said in a recent interview that his agency is looking to arrange community placements for 10 residents of the Glenwood Resource Center. The main hurdle has been finding suitable housing for the residents, including those who use wheelchairs, Swigert said. His company might retrofit some homes for that purpose.

Swigert said he and his staff are reassuring residents’ families that they will continue to have necessary services, including round-the-clock staffing. “They’re concerned, they’re anxious — which is very understandable,” he said. “These individuals are being required to move from what has pretty much been their lifetime home.”

The institution’s 380-acre campus includes numerous ranch-style homes, where residents live with oversight from staff. It has several large old buildings, from days when people with disabilities were warehoused. It also includes a fire station, a greenhouse, a water tower, and a cemetery containing the graves of hundreds of people who have died at the institution since the 1800s.

The facility has been a vital part of life in Glenwood, a town of about 5,000 people near the Missouri River. The institution has nearly 470 workers, making it the largest employer in the area, with relatively good wages and benefits. Two or three generations of many local families have worked there.

 

Some may find new jobs in the Omaha, Nebraska, area, which is less than an hour away, but town leaders worry others will move away. A few may transfer to a similar institution owned by the state in the town of Woodward, which is 150 miles to the northeast.

‘Last ones out’

Some of the institution’s residents will never understand the situation. One is Seth Finken, 43, who has lived at the Glenwood Resource Center since 1984. Childhood meningitis damaged his brain and left him blind, deaf and medically fragile.

His mother, Sybil Finken, lives in the town of Glenwood and sees few options for her son in the region. The most advanced care programs she has talked to are in bigger cities, such as Des Moines or Dubuque. “This is Seth’s community,” she said. “I don’t want him moving two or four hours away.”

For years, Sybil Finken called for Iowa to keep operating the Glenwood Resource Center. She knew most other states had closed institutions for people with disabilities. She figured Iowa would follow suit eventually, but she believed assurances that longtime residents could live out their lives there.

Now, she said, all she can do is keep talking to private care agencies and hope someone figures out how to keep her son safe in a community setting.

“Seth and I are going to be the last ones out the door,” she said.

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(KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.)

©2022 Kaiser Health News. Visit khn.org. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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