Friday, May 17, 2013

$240 million judgment against turkey processor for abusing disabled workers will be reduced

NPR reported this week on a huge judgment the EEOC got earlier this month against Hill County Farms, a contractor at a turkey processing plant where 32 intellectually disabled men worked in abusive conditions over the course of three decades--for $2/day.  Hill County, which is now out of business, was the company paid to oversee the men's work and provide their accommodation.  And their accommodation was part of the problem--an old school that was roach and mice-infested, which the fire inspector immediately condemned once the men were emancipated four years ago. Supervisors for Hill County had hit, kicked, handcuffed and verbally abused the men, who ranged in age from their 40s to their 60s.  Many of them had worked in the plant for most of their adult lives.  The civil suit initiated by the EEOC established the men's physical and emotional abuse.

The matter was in news this week because the $240 million judgment for the men will be reduced because it exceeds a legal cap on jury awards.  But Yuki Noguchi, reporting for NPR, took that opportunity to amplify how "the case highlights the difficulty of preventing and identifying abuse of vulnerable workers, who are also the least likely to come forward about violations."

Susan Seehase, the director of a support center in Iowa that took in many of the men following their emancipation, said the abuse "went on and on ... because the men knew nothing better and because no one reported the abuse."  
Their life experiences didn't tell them that there was really another option for them.  It's incredibly difficult to try to understand. And I have no explanation. And I don't know who can explain how this really happened.
Certainly, a lack of legal consciousness was part of the problem.  Also, the men had all been moved to Iowa from Texas, and thus were far from family and friends.  

Robert Canino, who prosecuted the case for the EEOC is also quoted about how these cases can go undiscovered, and he compared this one to human trafficking cases he has prosecuted in that the victims are isolated from family and friends:  
"We see the impact of the verdict as one that will hopefully open all our eyes to be more vigilant as a society, to be more watchful.  Maybe they're people who we see but we don't notice. We don't notice them because we consciously or subconsciously assign them to some different station in life, and we assume that we can't connect with them, we can't relate to them, so we go about our business." 
This case, he says, demonstrates the cost of failing to notice. "It's a wake-up call, and hopefully we don't ever in the future have to ask the question: 'How could this go on for so long and nobody notice?'"
As a ruralist, I can't help wonder if and how the place where these events took place had an impact on the failure to discover the abuse sooner.  This abuse occurred in Atalissa, Iowa, a town of 311, in the southeast corner of the state.  Small towns are known for their lack of anonymity and lack of privacy, yes, but rural space can also conceal, resulting in enhanced privacy, hiding abuse like that against these men. That is the paradox of rural privacy.  The photo of the school where the men were housed appears to be in a rural area, not in a town itself, but I can't be sure from just the photo.  If the old school was not in the town itself, that locale might have played a role how long the abuse dragged on.  But the bottom line is that, like the women rescued last week in Cleveland, this abuse happened in someone's "backyard."  It's hard to believe--especially in a community so small--that no one saw anything to raise alarm over the course of several decades.  

1 comment:

Patricija said...

I absolutely agree. I think that the propensity of small town to conceal abuse such as this was at work. While everyone knows everyone and everything, there is still a "it's not my business" mentality. Further, I think there is this sense of, lets keep this in the family. Just as family scandals are to be contained, so are community ones.