Severely intellectually and physically disabled patients at a state-run home in Iowa were used as “guinea pigs” in research experiments involving sexual arousal, a federal civil-rights lawsuit claimed this week.
The 38-page complaint filed on Monday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa alleges that a former University of Kansas assistant professor and child psychologist, 63-year-old Jerry Rea, experimented on the “highly vulnerable” patients at the Glenwood Resource Center. Rea’s affiliation with the university reportedly ended when he moved to Iowa, and he was terminated from his role as superintendent at Glenwood when it came under federal scrutiny in December, The Des Moines Register reported.
Glenwood, an intermediate care facility operated by the Iowa Department of Human Services, serves roughly 200 individuals, some of whom are non-communicative and rely on the center’s medical staff “for their very survival,” according to the suit. It was filed by six former employees who claim the center violated their rights and state whistleblower laws between 2017 and 2019.
The lawsuit comes after the U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation in November over allegations that experiments had been conducted on the center’s patients without their consent or the consent of their legal guardians. The DOJ told state officials last year that it was probing whether patients’ rights were violated, and the Iowa Department of Human Services has said it is conducting a separate investigation into the allegations; it held town halls this month with patients’ families and center staff, according to the Register.
The lawsuit claims that Rea, along with the facility’s other top administrators, used taxpayer money to purchase tools under the auspices of research, including silk sheets, boxer shorts, sexual lubricants, a computer, a software program, and pornographic images. The facility's administrators did not “obtain informed consent” from the patients’ guardians prior to beginning research and later “scramble[d]” to “get consent on behalf of patients that had been experimented on after receiving notice of a new Department of Justice investigation” in 2019, the suit claims.
The plans for Rea’s research allegedly included the use of a portable GPS device for measuring sexual arousal, and the plaintiffs note he and a partner received a federal patent in 1998 for a device designed to detect and monitor the sexual arousal of an individual while they are exposed to “real-life sexual stimuli.”
The initial 1996 patent application describes how the device measures, in males, the size of the individual’s penis using “a penile plethysmograph” and, in females, “vaginal wall reflectivity,” as well as heart rate, blood pressure, and skin temperature.
The scheme in Iowa also included medication adjustments—like the addition of dopamine inhibitors—“without regard” for the effect on patients, which in some residents caused seizures, according to the lawsuit.
“When a non-physician unilaterally adjusts [a patient’s] medication mix, without understanding these related medications, the risk of patient harm is significant,” the lawsuit states.
Rea is also accused in the suit of using about $60,000 in taxpayer money to pay the maintenance staff at Glenwood to renovate his personal residence, diverting them from their regular duties “maintaining safe, sanitary and habitable homes and grounds for GRC's vulnerable patients for more than two months.”
Along with Rea, the suit’s defendants include the Glenwood Resource Center; the Iowa Department of Human Services; Jerry Foxhoven, the former director of the state’s Department of Human Services who was reportedly ousted in June 2019; Richard Shults, former director of the Division of Mental Health and Disability for the state’s Department of Human Services; and Mohammad Rehman, Glenwood’s current medical director.
The defendants participated in a scheme to “creatively destroy” the healthcare and supervisory systems “designed by the DOJ and other agencies to safeguard the health and civil rights” of Glenwood’s patients in order to turn the center into a research facility for “sexual arousal” experiments, the suit claims.
The Daily Beast was unable to immediately reach Rea or any of his co-defendants by phone or email on Thursday, and neither Rea nor the others had attorneys attached to their case in federal court documents.
In a previous statement, Matt Highland, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Human Services, told the Register, “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.” (Highland did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast on Thursday.)
The suit’s six plaintiffs are several former employees of the facility who left or were allegedly forced out under Rea’s tenure, including physicians and nurse practitioners who claim they tried to report the alleged wrongdoing and faced retaliation in the form of punishment or termination.
They were identified as Kelly Brodie, who served in various management roles at the facility; Dr. John Heffron, a physician; Katherine King, a former employee and now a patient guardian; Dr. Michael Langenfeld, a physician; Katherine Rall, director of quality management; and Jamie Shaw, a nurse practitioner.
“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 alleges, which it contends resulted in “severe financial and reputational harm and emotional distress to [the] plaintiffs, but also recklessly endangered the health and well-being of the state’s most vulnerable citizens.”
The lawsuit seeks unspecified punitive and compensatory damages in an amount “that will fairly and justly compensate [the] plaintiffs for the violation of their civil rights, mental anguish, pain and suffering, lost earnings and benefits and damage to their reputations.”