Monday, March 24, 2014

Toil, abuse and endurance in the heartland. How is this NOT my son's future?

The 'Boys' in the Bunkhouse

Toil, abuse and endurance in the heartland, sad doesn't quite describe it. However, there seems to be a silver lining thanks to those who care. It's a critical reminder of what can happen to our children when nobody is watching.

This front page article by Dan Barry is the story of dozens of men with intellectual disabilities who were held as virtual slaves in squalid conditions in a small town in Iowa and forced to work at a chicken processing plant for over 30 years.  They were paid a subminimum wage and this case is thought to have influenced President Obama in his recent decision to include people with disabilities in his executive order to raise the minimum wage of employees under federal contracts.  The link includes a 35-minute documentary about the men.  I've taken out the pictures, but they really are important to the story. Worth the read and view... 

WATERLOO, IOWA — A man stands at a bus stop. He wears bluejeans, cowboy boots, and a name tag pinned like a badge to his red shirt. It says: Clayton Berg, dishwasher, county sheriff’s office.
He is 58, with a laborer’s solid build, a preference to be called Gene and a whisper-white scar on his right wrist. His backpack contains a jelly sandwich, a Cherry Coke and a comforting pastry treat called a Duchess Honey Bun.
The Route 1 bus receives him, then resumes its herky-jerky journey through the northeastern Iowa city of Waterloo, population 68,000. He stares into the panoramic blur of ordinary life that was once so foreign to him.
Mr. Berg comes from a different place.
For more than 30 years, he and a few dozen other men with intellectual disabilities — affecting their reasoning and learning — lived in a dot of a place called Atalissa, about 100 miles south of here. Every morning before dawn, they were sent to eviscerate turkeys at a processing plant, in return for food, lodging, the occasional diversion and $65 a month. For more than 30 years.
Their supervisors never received specialized training; never tapped into Iowa’s social service system; never gave the men the choices in life granted by decades of advancement in disability civil rights. Increasingly neglected and abused, the men remained in heartland servitude for most of their adult lives.
This Dickensian story — told here through court records, internal documents and extensive first-time interviews with several of the men — is little known beyond Iowa. But five years after their rescue, it continues to resound in halls of power. Last year the case led to the largest jury verdict in the history of theEqual Employment Opportunity Commission: $240 million in damages — an award later drastically reduced, yet still regarded as a watershed moment for disability rights in the workplace. In both direct and subtle ways, it has also influenced government initiatives, advocates say, including President Obama’s recent executive order to increase the minimum wage for certain workers.
Overall, the Atalissa case has been a catalyst for change, according to SenatorTom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, a longtime champion of people with disabilities, who still struggles with what these vulnerable men endured in his home state.
“I hate to see what happened to them,” the senator says. “But, by gosh, something might happen from them.”
The dark tale of Mr. Berg and his work mates has spurred introspection in Atalissa and beyond about society’s perception of those with disability. About what is noticed, what is not and what remains in need of constant vigilance.
“The turkey plant case has really haunted all of us,” says Curt Decker, the executive director of the National Disability Rights Network. “This is what happens when we don’t pay attention.”
This Waterloo bus does not go to Atalissa. But the man in cowboy boots, rocking to its gentle sway, needs only to notice that telltale scar on his wrist, and he is instantly returned.Gene Berg waiting for the Route 1 bus in Waterloo, Iowa, and on his way to his job as a dishwasher at the Black Hawk Sheriff's Office. Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
The Scene
A veteran social worker named Denise Gonzales drove past the winter-quiescent fields of 2009 to some town called Atalissa. She had to see for herself what subordinates were telling her.
She pulled uphill to an old schoolhouse, its turquoise exterior garish amid the sleeping acres of snow-dusted brown. She found an open door and stepped into a wonderland nightmare, with walls painted playhouse colors, floors speckled with roaches and the air rank with neglect.
From the squalid building’s shadows emerged its residents, all men, extending hands in welcome, their long fingernails caked with dried blood. A few hands looked almost forked. “From pulling crop,” they explained, a term that she soon learned referred to the yanking of craws from freshly killed turkeys.  

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