Six former employees of a state-run Iowa home for people with severe disabilities allege that its ex-superintendent used “highly vulnerable” patients as “guinea pigs” in his sexual arousal experiments. In a lawsuit filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, the whistleblowers contend that Jerry Rea, a former assistant professor at the University of Kansas and a child psychologist, funneled taxpayer money into his research efforts during his time at the Glenwood Resource Center. The suit claims that he also failed to “obtain informed consent” from the patients’ guardians beforehand.
Complaints about the alleged conduct were reportedly met with retaliation, Rea and other officials scheming to “creatively destroy” the health care system and push out the people charged with protecting patients, per the court documents. In addition to creating a “toxic and hostile work environment,” according to the lawsuit, Rea “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.”
According to the Des Moines Register, Glenwood houses around 200 people with physical and intellectual abilities. Many residents can’t speak, walk, or eat without assistance, and many have also been diagnosed with mental illnesses. When Rea was hired as GRC’s superintendent in 2017, the lawsuit states, he began dismantling regulatory and medicare care guidelines imposed by the state — with apparent approval from his supervisors. Having assumed total management authority, the complaint continues, Rea then set about experimenting on the people under his care.
In furtherance of his “research,” Rea allegedly purchased “silk sheets or silk boxer shorts, sexual lubricants, stock photos which included pornographic images, … a dedicated computer, software program, and a joystick” using public funds. The lawsuit also mentions plans for a “portable GPS for measuring sexual arousal,” and alludes to patents Rea secured in the 1990s, for devices designed to measure response to “real-life sexual stimuli outside of a clinical or laboratory setting.”
To “prepare” patients for these studies, the lawsuit contends, Rea manipulated their prescriptions, sometimes adding in dopamine inhibitors — without regard to what the new drugs might do to a “complex array of carefully calibrated medications.” Some patients, according to the complaint, experienced seizures, or exhibited “behavior that was later used by Defendants to justify the increased use of physical restraints.”
When the plaintiffs — a former assistant superintendent of treatment support services, two physicians, a nurse practitioner, a former GRC guardian of two patients, and GRC’s former director of quality management — complained, they were either ignored, or punished with “demotions, reprimands, reductions in duties, suspensions, and termination.” Rea, the lawsuit says, worked in tandem with high-ranking officials in the Iowa Department of Human Services (its former director, Jerry Foxhoven, and its former director of mental health and disability services, Richard Shults, are both named as defendants) and GRC itself (also named: Mohammad Rehman, Glenwood’s medical director).
“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,” Iowa DHS spokesperson Matt Highland told the Register. “We continue to take all necessary action to address all allegations.”
The Iowa DHS is reportedly undertaking an investigation into the goings-on at Glenwood, which fired Rea in December, after the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into reports of “harmful and uncontrolled human … experiments” and various other abuses at the facility. The center saw 14 patient deaths between June 2018 and April 2019, a trend employees blamed on drastically eroded standards of care under Rea’s leadership. “It’s not normal to have this many deaths,” Kathy King, a former administrator and a plaintiff in Monday’s lawsuit, told the Register last year. “This is too many to be a coincidence.”