Durante 30 anos um grupo de homens com problemas mentais trabalhou diariamente numa fábrica em troca de alojamento, comida e cerca de 65 dólares por mês. O caso era conhecido no Iowa. Há cinco anos, foi revelado. E em 2013 os responsáveis foram condenados a pagar 240 milhões de dólares de compensação. Agora, o The New York Times voltou ao assunto com a reportagem The Boys in the Bunkhouse.
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.
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.
You the boss lady? they asked, with grins of gaptoothed decay. You in charge of us now? A few led her on a tour past the soiled mattresses, the overloaded electrical outlets, the trash bins collecting the snow melt dripping from the ceiling — their home.
The schoolhouse was crime-scene crowded. Law enforcement investigators. Social workers. The nervous caretakers. A woman just up from Texas, identifying herself as a co-owner of Henry’s Turkey Service and describing these “boys” as employees who were like family.
“Dressed to the nines,” Ms. Gonzales recalls. “And right outside that room were these men needing medical attention, malnourished, with mice crawling in their rooms.”
Two decades on the front lines of human frailty had not prepared her for this. But Ms. Gonzales suppressed her panic to focus on the names of these 21 Texans soon to be in her care. Gene. Willie. Henry. Frank. Keith. The Penner brothers, Billy and Robert. Others.
All the while, she kept thinking: How in God’s name did they wind up here?
On a dormant ranch outside the central Texas town of Goldthwaite, a man hunches over his walker to study a framed collage of faded photos. Dozens of young men in baseball caps, cowboy hats and even clown costumes smile back.
“Tiny, we called him, a colored boy who was here for several years,” he says, pointing. He studies their faces. “Uh, let’s see, who’s in there. Gene Berg …”
The man, Kenneth Henry, 73, directs his walker to a dim office that features an aerial photograph of the Atalissa schoolhouse. He takes a seat, then a breath, and tries to explain.
Back in the late 1960s, Mr. Henry, a turkey insemination expert, became partners with T. H. Johnson, the larger-than-life owner of this ranch. With the government’s blessing, the rancher was running a for-profit program that took in young men from state institutions and trained them in agricultural work — and some basic life skills.
He called his philosophy “the magic of simplicity.”
Unregulated arrangements like the Johnson ranch would later be derided as exploitative. But at the time they offered rare alternatives to institutions like the Abilene State School, where thousands with disabilities, from infants to the aged, lived in wards divided by need, often with little or no contact with families.
“A different time,” says Jaylon Fincannon, a consultant in developmental disabilities and a former Texas deputy commissioner for intellectual disability services. “Thank God it’s different now.”
More than 1,000 young men were chosen over the years to embody this magic of simplicity, including Gene Berg, from the Abilene State School, by way of a small town outside Dallas.
He had been a well-behaved boy whose profound learning issues left his parents feeling helpless. One day they took him, their only son, to the sprawling Abilene institution, and were told not to visit for a while so that he could become acclimated. Gene was 12.
“It killed him,” says his mother, Wanda Berg LaGrassa, her voice shredding. “It killed us.”
Also chosen was Willie Levi, from the Mexia State School, by way of the city of Orange. His mother cleaned hotel rooms, and his father drank. “Had to pour cold water on him,” the son recalls. “That’s the only way I get him up.”
Mr. Levi excelled in sports at Mexia. In 1970, the local newspaper reported that he had won the 880-yard race at the state championships for special schools.
“Gold medal,” he says.
Among the many others were Billy and Robert Penner, sons of a long-haul truck driver and a housewife in Amarillo. One day their older brother, Wesley, came home after a long absence and was told that the boys had been sent to the Abilene school. The reason given: “Mom couldn’t handle them anymore.”
Most turkeys are bred with breasts so unusually large that they cannot reproduce naturally. This requires that the toms be caught, stimulated and milked; the semen rushed to the henhouse; and the females caught, flipped and inseminated. The young men who went to Goldthwaite often worked in turkey insemination, catching the birds.
The workers lived in a bunkhouse, and spent most of the little money they received every month at the Johnson family’s roadside country store. “Hamburgers, and peanut brittle, and some soda water,” Mr. Levi says. “Them long candies, Butternut.”
The job could be difficult, and Mr. Johnson mercurial, but most of the men had nowhere else to go. At least in Goldthwaite, they were welcome at Johnson family gatherings — “Everybody was included,” Mr. Henry says — and were counted when the boss man, T. H., made bed checks at night.
“One of those people you could love real easy and hate at the same time,” Robert Womack, a former business partner, says. “The son of a bitch is dead and gone, but he cared about those boys, and he took care of them.”
Before long, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Henry had secured contracts in several states for their turkey-savvy crews, including one at a processing plant somewhere in Iowa.”
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