Wednesday, February 25, 2009

DHS documents show that state looked into Iowa turkey factory's use of developmentally disabled workers in 1970s

From The Gazette in Solon, Iowa. Sen. Tom Harkins, D-Iowa, is planning congressional hearings about the use of developmentally disabled workers at the turkey-processing plant.

DES MOINES -- From DHS spokesman Roger Munns: A file released Feb. 24 by the Iowa Department of Human Services shows state social workers twice previously discussed whether to intervene at an Atalissa facility housing men with mental retardation.

The facility, operated by Henry's Turkey Service and known locally as the "bunkhouse," was closed on Feb. 7 by the state fire marshal for unsafe conditions after 35 years of operation.

The file contains two memos from the 1970s, with one from a worker who said the Atalissa men had virtually no rights.

"Once the resident becomes an employee of Henry's Turkey Service, he for all practical purposes loses most basic human rights," said social worker Ed George in a memo to district manager James Strickland dated Dec. 4, 1974.

But in a report six weeks later, Strickland said, "There seems to be good group spirit and morale, and it would seem to us that a cohesive group exists here." His report said a separate state agency had agreed to be the "project monitor" for checking on the Atalissa men.

It would be eight more years before Iowa adopted a law to protect victims of dependent adult abuse. The law was passed in 1982 and implemented in 1983. The file also has e-mail exchanges between DHS officials in 1997 in which it is concluded that despite concerns, the department did not have jurisdiction to intervene because there was no allegation of abuse of a dependent adult.

At that time, DHS officials were also in contact with officials in Texas, where Henry's Turkey Service is incorporated.The 38-page paper file, discovered about two weeks ago in the DHS Muscatine County office, is not an active file and may not be complete. There are no documents between the 1970s and 1997.

DHS Director Gene Gessow referred to the file in his testimony to legislators last week. The file was given to the Division of Criminal Investigation, but agents returned it on Friday. The file, redacted to exclude client names and other information that is not public, is being released today.

After receiving a call to the abuse after-hours hot line on Feb. 5, the DHS assembled a large team of social workers to evaluate the 21 men living in the bunkhouse and provide basic services for several days.

Three days later the DHS determined that all were dependent. A judge agreed with that assessment on Feb. 10, permitting the DHS to provide protective services. Later that day all were placed at Exceptional Persons, Inc., in Waterloo. Nineteen of them live there today; two have since been returned to care of relatives in Texas.

Gessow said he respected the opinions expressed in the memos but would not point fingers or second-guess decisions.

"I'm not going to debate whether I would have done something differently 35 years ago," he said. "What I will do is pledge that from now forward, the Department of Human Services will be aggressively vigilant to protect the rights of dependent adults.

"I have already shown my determination to improve services at our two facilities for people with mental retardation, and I'm pleased to tell you that we are nearly in compliance with very vigorous standards there.

"We must now turn our attention to vulnerable adults in the community," he said.

The 1974 memo from George, a social worker for an agency known then as the Department of Social Services, said any man assigned to Atalissa "loses control of finances, the location where he lives, the type of work he does, and the type of housing in which he must dwell, as well as with whom. If he dislikes any of these arrangements, his only way out is to return to an institution."

The file does not contain Strickland's response to George, but it does include Strickland's seven-page report to Muscatine County officials dated Jan. 23, 1975, which outlined conditions in Atalissa and concluded there should be continued monitoring.

"The living quarters are not tastefully decorated, in good repair or maintained in high standards," he wrote. "But they are warm, adequate, and maintained by the men themselves."

The memo said that a worker who did not "work out" could be returned to a state institution but "this has happened infrequently. More often, the Texas Rehabilitation Commission has reopened services and the man has re-entered a period of training."

All of the men were once Texas residents.

The file also contains an undated newspaper article entitled "Turkey employee probe refused."

It was written by Jeffrey Kummer, who was a reporter for newspapers in Muscatine and Davenport between the years 1973 and 1977.