TOPEKA, Kan. —
A child psychologist facing a federal lawsuit in Iowa stemming from sexual arousal experiments he oversaw on residents at a state care center for people with intellectual disabilities conducted similar research in Kansas while running one of its state hospitals.
The Kansas agency that oversees the state’s hospitals says its initial investigation of sexual arousal research involving Jerry Rea in Kansas suggests that ethics guidelines and proper protocols were followed. Rea was superintendent of the Parsons State Hospital and Training Center for people with intellectual disabilities in southeastern Kansas from October 2004 until September 2017.
Rea then became superintendent of the Glenwood Resource Center in southwestern Iowa but was fired at the end of last year amid a federal investigation of the facility. Six former employees filed the federal lawsuit Monday, alleging that they were fired or forced to resign because they questioned Rea’s activities.
Cara Sloan Ramos, spokeswoman for the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, said once the Kansas agency learned of the allegations from news reports in early December, “we proactively and immediately began an internal review” of the Parsons hospital’s “history of research conducted on sexual arousal.”
She said the Parsons hospital “is not currently engaged in research related to sexual arousal and no sexual arousal data has been collected” there since Rea’s departure.
“Providing a safe, healthy environment for residents to succeed and applying the highest standards of patient care have always been the foundational focus and mission of the hospital,” she said in an email.
The Iowa lawsuit alleges that Rea used “highly vulnerable” patients with intellectual disabilities in his research, without prior permission from their guardians. It alleges he and others directed that patients’ medications be changed in their research preparations and generally reduced patient protections.
The lawsuit also said that when Glenwood officials were notified last year of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation, they scrambled to get guardians’ consent to the experiments they had already started.
Rea, who has not been charged with committing any crimes, has not publicly addressed the lawsuit’s accusations, and it wasn’t clear from court records Thursday whether he had an attorney. A phone listing for him in Iowa could not be found and a listing for him in Kansas had been disconnected.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly said Thursday that she was aware of the lawsuit and its allegations because of news coverage.
“I get concerned whenever there is mistreatment of patients, no matter where it is,” she said following an event in Wichita.
Rea has been involved in research into sexual deviancy and sexual arousal among offenders since at least 1996, when he wrote a doctoral thesis on the subject at the University of Kansas.
Two years later, records show, he and another researcher obtained a patent for a device to measure sexual arousal in men outside the laboratory, with the Parsons hospital listed as owner. Rea worked at the hospital for more than two decades before becoming superintendent.
Rea also was an assistant research professor with the University of Kansas from 1999 through January 2015 at its Life Span Institute center in Parsons, and contracts and external grants funded his position, according to university spokeswoman Erinn Barcomb-Peterson. The institute studies problems affecting individuals’ health.
Barcomb-Peterson said Rea became an uncompensated university “affiliate” when his contracts ended, but that he lost that status in January 2019 “in light of his move to Iowa.”
The university and the Department for Aging and Disability Services did not provide further details about Rea’s research in Kansas. But the department said its review suggested the research complied with two universities’ guidelines on research with human subjects and obtaining proper consent.
From 1998 to 2017, Rea was coauthor of at least five published papers that dealt with either sexual arousal, measuring arousal or sex offenders, or some combination of those subjects.
A 1998 paper involved a study of using a portable device to measure sexual arousal in four male state hospital patients who also had committed sex offenses. Their arousal was monitored in the laboratory and “the natural environment.”
A 2013 paper examined the “relapse prevention skills” of 10 men living at a “state facility for sex offenders diagnosed with intellectual disability.” A 2016 paper sought to assess the effectiveness of medications used to reduce the sex drive in offenders, studying a 24-year-old with an intellectual disability.
The Parsons hospital, about 110 miles (180 kilometers) southwest of Kansas City, has about 160 intellectually disabled patients and another 12 residents of a state program that confines offenders identified as sexual predators for treatment after their prison sentences.
The Iowa lawsuit says meeting records from the Glenwood center revealed a “collaborative effort” with individuals at the Parsons hospital and the University of Kansas “to conduct sexual arousal research and to publish the research findings” with Glenwood patients as subjects.
The lawsuit also says records reflect that a research proposal to the University of Kansas was rejected in late 2018 and that they reported that “KU’s sexual arousal research would be conducted with male college students.”
Barcomb-Peterson did not immediately reply to an email seeking a response to the lawsuit’s claims. The Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services stood by its statement that no data was collected at the Parsons hospital after Rea left.
Also contributing to this report were Associated Press researcher Randy Herschaft in New York and AP writers Ryan Foley in Iowa City, Iowa; David Pitt in Des Moines, Iowa; and Roxana Hegeman in Wichita, Kansas.
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