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Boone County Poor Farm

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From "Poor Farm" to care facility, River Valley Will Again Experience Changes
Boone Today, 1994

By: Mary Gardner

To end up at the "poor farm" - that was a specter that haunted many of our forebearers.

Yesterday's "poor farm" residents are today's "street people" or at least they are cared for through some sort of welfare.

Before the middle of the 20th century, counties in Iowa had the responsibility for taking care of paupers in their county. That is still true, more or less, except the term pauper is no longer used and there are state and federal programs to assist those unable to care for themselves.

River Valley Residential Services, Inc., originated as the Boone County Poor Farm. The county borrowed $12,000 in 1867 to purchase the 240 acres from J.F. Alexander. During its early years, the population of the county poor farm was about equally divided between paupers and the insane.

The poor farm used the residents and also hired men to farm the land and take care of the dairy, beef, hogs and chickens. These men were paid for their work during the summer and lived there with their families all year. There was also a cemetery there for the residents to use and between 1894 and 1921, according to WPA and death records, 38 people were buried in the cemetery.

In 1894, a major tragedy occurred when the building that housed the insane was consumed by fire, along with eight inmates. The building was separate from the building that housed the paupers and the fire did not affect the second building.

The present main building of the facility was built in 1917, replacing one of the original buildings, and the two back wings were added in 1940. The land is now leased out for cash rent. Until 1988, Boone County taxes solely supported the staff and residents at the care facility. As wards of the county, the residents were not eligible for Supplemental Security Income, Medicare or Medicaid benefits. In 1988, after the board of supervisors contracted with a non-profit board to run the facility, the residents were eligible to receive the funds. This relieved some of the financial pressure on the county, about $200,000 a year.

In Iowa the counties are responsible for the care of the mentally retarded and pay mch of the cost of the mentally ill. River Valley Residential Services is accredited to provide mental health services and is in many ways an extension of the state mental hospitals.

Because of the changing social and economic considerations, changes are taking place in the care of those people who are the responsibility of the county. Some counties no longer have a county "poorfarm" or care facility which houses their poor, mentally ill or retarded citizens. A study is currently underway looking at the feasibility of transferring River Valley residents to Boone and supporting them by several programs which will enable them to function as part of the community.

The River Valley board of directors is in the process of restructuring the operation of the residential services to take into consideration the current and future needs of the residents. About 90 percent of the residents are designated chronically mentally ill or mentally retarded and about 10 percent are elderly who need support. However, it is estimated that half of the residents could live independently utilizing a minimum of support services.

The quality of care at River Valley has met all the state and federal requirements. However, the trend in care ofr such individuals is to mainstream them into the community rather than isolate.

The decision to restructure is based on two major concerns of the board, Grush said: 1) The facility is outdated in terms of serving the needs of residents and meeting the requirements of a care facility. Residents live in dormitory style rooms with some 40 beds in one room and the facility has multiple levels. 2) The maintenance of the building is becoming expensive and the facility would need major work in the near future to meet the needs of residents.

In addition, the board has seen success in two programs developed for the residents at River Valley. One is supported living in the community, which has been successfully operating for three years, and the other is supported employment, which was put into effect one year ago.

Administration needs change

Grush said dual administration came from an era of county "poor farms" where the husband managed the farm and the wife managed the home. The board wished to streamline the operation and hire a single administrator who can plan and work with the public in determining the feasibility of expanding community living and supported employment.

"At this point the board has not established a planning process or a plan, nor will such a process be completed in six to 12 month," Grush said.

The board has no idea yet what a new facility would look like or the feasibility of such a facility. "We're not at a point where we have painted ourselves into a corner by any means. However, we need to position ourselves to deal with the needs of our residents," Grush said.

The transition process may take three to five years to develop, starting with establishing a task force in the community made up of business people, private citizens, care professsionals, staff members and people who know how to seek grants and other sources of funding.

Grush said it is important to involve the community in the process because the initial set up may require additional funds. However, he said that it may be a "pay now or pay later" type of situation because the cost of keeping the old facility in operation may cost more in the long run than building residential complexes in teh community.

In addition, HUD monies are available for such housing and even the private sector has shown interest in building residential housing because rental of the units would be guaranteed.

Grush said that the public "needs to know that the decision should be theirs." If the cost to the county is higher than current tax limitation allows, the establishment of a new community facility may need to be put on hold for another two years; however, Grush said after a year of planning, "the financial situation may look significantly better by then," he said.

"Our taxpayers may decide that it would be better to spend less now to begin the transition than wait another two years and spend more," he said.

Planning for the future

Grush said when the county care facility was privatized in in 1988, the county responsibility was reduced by about $200,000 a year. "Looking back, some of that savings should have been set aside by the board of supervisors in order to prepare for future requirements in the services," he said.

However, Grush said that the care facility board has made some good decisions as well, such as establishing community residential living and supported employment and finding grants for supported employment. "Having those programs already in place will aid in the transition phase, "he said.

In addition, the facility has a good reputation, has attracted residents from outside the county (who pay a higher fee), and has "very few and no major deficiencies," Grush said. Also the 77 year old facility has been well maintained.

"While some of the residents at River Valley may never be able to adapt to independent or supported levels of residential living, most can take the change successfully," Grush said. Living in the community is less costly than institutional living and more normalized than living in dorms.

The demographics are also changing. Residents at River Valley are younger and are there on a shorter term basis. As the older population at River Valley decreases, there is less need for such a facility. Story County is an example of one of the many counties that have closed their care facilities or have opted for community residential services and group homes at various levels to serve the needs of today's residents.

"If Boone County does not plan for these changes, it may find itself without a facility, limited resources, and loss of jobs," Grush said. "In additio, those dollars generated by caring for the residents of other counties, as the facility does now, will go out of the county. County tax dollars will leave the county along with the residents."

Boone County has a current model of success in the programs developed by the Work Activity Center, which has removed many clients from Woodward and put them into supervised living at considerable savings to the county.

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