URBANDALE, Iowa -- Sixteen-year-old Joe Buerckley didn't get a good start. His adoptive mother says his biological parents abused and neglected him, which left Joe with a brain injury and psychiatric problems.
"He has an IQ of 63. He has reactive attachment disorder. He has borderline autism," says his mother, Suzie Buerckley.
Buerckely and her husband began fostering Joe when he was four and adopted him two years later. They tried to care for him in their home, but three years ago they decided a group home, located at 3505 Hillsdale in Urbandale, would better serve his needs and help him live more independently.
"Joe needs to know that at 8:10 every morning he brushes his teeth, at 8:20 he’s going to have breakfast and now that he’s in school, that at 8:30, the bus is going to come," said Buerckley.
At school, Joe enjoys working with his rabbit. Cleaning out its cage is one of his chores. It gives him purpose and is part of his highly structured day. Suzie has never worried about Joe at school. In fact, she says the teachers and counselors at Urbandale High School were the first to alert her to potential problems at the group home Joe shared with two other young men.
Suzie Buerckley recalls the time Joe came to school and said he didn't feel right. He told the teacher "they made me take a pill that wasn't mine." That pill turned out to be lithium, which isn't prescribed to Joe.
"It was for another child that lived in that group home," said Buerckley.
That was in January. Three months later, teachers told Buerckley her son was being placed in "time out" more frequently. His behavior was so erratic, counselors weren't sure he'd be able to remain in school. Buerckley soon realized why.
"Twenty-six or 27 days out of April they mis-medicated my son. It was a schedule two medication... which is by law to be counted every eight hours," said Buerckley. "So, three times a day someone signed off saying that that med was given to my son and it was never given."
The incidents were documented, but Buerckley says she didn't find out about the medication errors until the Iowa Department of Human Services contacted her.
REM Iowa, the company in charge of Joe's group home, declined an on-camera interview but issued a statement, saying in part, "REM Iowa is committed to providing quality of life enhancing services to the individuals we are privileged to support. We take our obligation to ensure the safety and well-being of those we serve very seriously."
But Buerckley says the situation only got worse.
"The house just went out of control ... Joe would call me and say this child showed me his penis."
Reports to the DHS show a resident at the home sexually abused Joe and another resident on at least three occasions.
"And I went and I said, how are you going to guarantee that my child is not going to be sexually assaulted in this home. And they said, 'Well, we can’t guarantee that.'"
REM Iowa blames the staff at the home. "Despite our best efforts we faced a continual challenge in recruiting and retaining the caliber of staff we believed were necessary for meeting the unique needs of children served in this program."
In August, REM Iowa decided to close the home. Buerckley received 30-days notice that she would have to find a new place for Joe to live. With a limited number of group homes in the state, Buerckley was forced to pull Joe out of school and bring him home, which for a child like Joe, is easier said than done.
"Joe will try so hard," said Buerckley, tears welling up in her eyes. "He will try. He will try really hard. And he will try to be what he says is 'good' because he doesn’t understand emotion ... he will try to be good, but at some point it won’t be good and when it’s not good, it’s awful."