AP NEWS

Troubled Iowa center ordered to reinstate aide fired in 2017

March 16, 2020 GMT

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A worker at a troubled center for disabled Iowans will be reinstated with years of back pay after a board ruled that he did not intentionally kick a resident in 2017, as was alleged by its then-superintendent.

The order to overturn Aaron Cole’s firing is the latest setback for management at the Glenwood Resource Center, which is facing investigations into allegations of substandard care and improper medical experimentation.

It could also be an expensive one for taxpayers. Cole, who was fired in August 2017, must be made whole under the Public Employment Relations Board ruling issued earlier this month. That means he’ll receive his roughly $60,000 annual salary and benefits for the past 2 1/2 years, minus any earnings he received from other jobs during that time.

The center, located in Glenwood in southwestern Iowa, houses about 250 individuals with intellectual disabilities and is overseen by the Iowa Department of Human Services. Cole had worked there since 2000 as a resident treatment worker helping care for residents.

“This is a big deal for Aaron,” said Danny Homan, president of AFSCME Council 61, a union that represented Cole in the appeal. “I’m glad that we have won this case and proved that you need to have a good reason to fire somebody.”

Cole confirmed Monday that he intends to return to work, but he declined to comment further.

A spokesman for DHS and a spokeswoman for the Department of Administrative Services declined to comment on the ruling, including whether their agencies might appeal it in district court.

Glenwood’s then-superintendent, Gary Anders, alleged that he witnessed Cole kick an adult male resident in the groin on Jan. 27, 2017, as he was doing rounds. The alleged incident occurred in the resident’s bedroom.

Cole, who had a positive work history and no prior allegations of abuse, contended that he did not intend to kick the resident. Instead, he said that he lifted his foot to block the resident, who was shirtless and trying to leave his bedroom. The resident wasn’t injured.

Cole was placed on what turned out to be a lengthy paid leave later that day as the center launched an investigation into what Anders considered dependent abuse. He was fired eight months later, in August 2017, after the center’s investigators repeatedly questioned him about the incident.

The Public Employment Relations Board voted 3-0 to adopt the findings of an administrative law judge, who found that a three-day suspension would have been appropriate discipline. Cole had acknowledged that using his foot to restrain an unruly resident was poor judgment and not consistent with his training.

But the judge found that Glenwood’s claims that Cole intentionally kicked the resident and failed to take responsibility for doing so were not supported by the evidence. The judge found that the center’s management failed to consider his history, including praise from colleagues for a “consistently mild-mannered demeanor and appropriate handling of even the most challenging residents.”

The Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals separately investigated the incident and reached a settlement with Cole, finding it was “minor, isolated and unlikely to reoccur.” That means Cole was not barred from working in care facilities.

Anders retired in February 2017, about two weeks after the incident. He was replaced as superintendent later that year by Jerry Rea, who was fired in December for what the DHS called a “mounting list of disregard for policies and procedures.”

The U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division is investigating allegations that Rea was planning to conduct human sexual arousal experiments on residents and had begun questionable hydration therapy. Investigators are also looking into a rise in patient deaths at the institution.

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Follow Ryan J. Foley on Twitter: https://twitter.com/rjfoley