Sunday, March 9, 2014

How dozens of intellectually disabled men were abused for decades, unnoticed, in rural Iowa

Dan Barry's lengthy feature, "The Boys in the Bunkhouse:  Servitude, Abuse and Redemption in a Tiny Farm Town" appears in today's New York Times.   It recounts the details of how a few dozen men with intellectual disabilities came to be living in Atalissa, Iowa (population 311) and working in a turkey processing plant eight miles away in West Liberty, population 3,736.  This earlier post describes what happened in 2009, when the squalor in which the men were living in an old schoolhouse was discovered.  A subsequent lawsuit resulted in a record $240 million judgement against the men's employer, Henry's Turkey Service, a Texas-based company that had installed the men in an abandoned schoolhouse turned dormitory in 1974, and who employed their "caretaker."  The award was subsequently reduced to $ 1.3 million, representing two years of back wages.  

One of the interesting aspects of this story, as I wrote in my earlier post, is how the men came to be overlooked in the context of a small town.  Indeed, Barry's story revealed that they were frequent patrons of the local mini-mart (since closed, without the $65/month in earnings/pocket money that the men had to spend there) and a bar or two, and that many of them also attended the local Lutheran church and were fixtures in the annual parade.  This segment describes the community's reaction after the men were whisked away by social workers, after a relative of one of the men learned he had only $80 in retirement savings after decades of working at the plant.  That relative called a reporter at the Des Moines Register, and the place was soon swarming with media and state officials.  The men were immediately transported to a Motel Six in nearby Muscatine.
The people of Atalissa could not believe that the boys had been spirited away overnight. “Like someone swooping in and taking your children for reasons you don’t know,” says Lynn Thiede, the former pastor at the Zion Lutheran Church. 
They were especially upset that their requests to contact their longtime neighbors were being denied. But many of the men were suffering from post-traumatic stress, Ms. Seehase says. “We were trying to give them a break from that life.” 
The Iowa news media flocked to Atalissa to ask how such abuse could have happened there. Defensive residents recalled the parades and dances, and explained that they had not been inside the schoolhouse for many years. Still, the criticism tugged at the collective conscience. 
“I’m sure some of us — a lot of us, maybe — had second thoughts,” Mr. Hepker says. “That we should have looked into it a little deeper.”
Mr. Hepker, a former Atalissa official, had earlier reported to the Department of Human Services that the school house's front door was padlocked.  Hepker recalls:  
I was told that they were understaffed as all government agencies are, and did I have any evidence. And I said, ‘Well, just the door being padlocked shut.’
Barry's report continues:  
The padlock disappeared. But the incident continues to vex Mr. Hepker. If he had called about a skinny dog in someone’s yard, he says, the response would have been quicker, and better.
Another interesting part is this description of the men's work ethic:
The men were occasionally ridiculed, and even pelted with turkey slime; more often, though, they were admired for their work ethic. Dave Meincke, the plant’s evisceration supervisor, has never forgotten “how they took me under their wing” when he joined the assembly line more than 30 years ago, or the pride they had in letting no shackle pass empty. 
“They came in, and they got it done,” he says. 
But the men did not earn the same as their nondisabled colleagues.
Henry’s Turkey Service, which was paid directly by the plant for the men’s labor, was capitalizing on a section of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 that allows certified employers to pay a subminimum wage to workers with a disability, based on their productivity when compared with that of nondisabled workers. 
The company also deducted hundreds of dollars from the men’s earnings andSocial Security benefits for room and board — and “in-kind” services, like bowling, dining out and annual visits to an amusement park. The rest was deposited in individual bank accounts in Goldthwaite [where Henry's Turkey Service was based] that the company dipped into to pay for incidentals and medical costs, since the men had no health insurance or Medicaid in Iowa.
Both West Liberty and Atalissa are in Muscatine County.  The men who have not returned to family in Texas are now living in nearby Waterloo.   

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