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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Iowa officials surprised Texas workers mistreated

Friday, February 20, 2009

DES MOINES - Officials from Atalissa acknowledged Tuesday that they knew doors were padlocked and windows boarded shut at an eastern Iowa house for mentally disabled men who worked at a nearby meatpacking plant.

But the City Council members from the tiny town told Iowa lawmakers they didn't think the 21 men from Texas were mistreated.

"I noticed the padlock," councilman Dennis Hepker said. "I think it was very livable there. These guys were always well-dressed and clean and polite. There was no evidence of mistreatment."

Hepker said he became concerned three or four years ago about a padlocked front door and called a regional Human Services Department official in Davenport and the county sheriff about the matter, but nothing came of the report and he didn't pursue it further.

Councilwoman Angie Dickey said residents of the 300-person town never thought the men were in trouble.

"They never did complain about anything," Dickey said. "They were happy-go-lucky guys."

The Atalissa officials appeared before the Government Oversight Committee, which is investigating the treatment of the men. They had worked at a nearby meatpacking plant since the 1970s through an arrangement coordinated by Henry's Turkey Service.

Henry's Turkey Service has been based in Dublin, Texas, but it's unclear where the business is now located. The company diverted much of the men's paychecks and government payments to living expenses, leaving them about $65 a month in wages.

The men lived in a 106-year-old house that locals called the bunkhouse. Some of its doors were padlocked, windows were boarded up and the heating system was broken, leaving only space heaters.

The state fire marshal ordered the house closed Feb. 7.

Lawmakers have questioned how the men could live so long without coming to the attention of neighbors in their small town.

Hepker said in past years local officials had been invited to tour the group home, though access had been tightened in recent years.

"Maybe that's one lesson we learn," said Hepker. "Maybe we should have looked a little closer.

The city officials said there's little they could have done differently.

The council members said over the years the men, known to most in the town as "the boys," had become an integral part of the community. They attended church regularly, socialized in the town and even entered floats in local parades.

Hepker added, "I've never noticed any abuse. I noticed the front door was chained and padlocked."

Some lawmakers didn't buy that argument.

"These happy guys are not happy now," said Rep. Wayne Ford, D-Des Moines. "There's blood on everybody's hands. That's just too naive."

Human Services spokesman Vern Armstrong said the agency was notified of the situation by law enforcement officials on the night of Feb. 5 and intervened the next morning.

"Our staff, in my opinion, responded very quickly to this," Armstrong said.

Less clear were reports that Human Services Department officials had been contacted over the years about the home, but had not acted.

"We're looking at our own internal process," agency director Gene Gessow told the panel.

In addition to hearings planned by the Government Oversight Committee, Gov. Chet Culver on Tuesday signed an executive order creating a task force that will recommend how state law can be tightened to prevent similar events.

"I want to get to the bottom of this situation and determine whether this most recent mistreatment of dependent adults was an isolated incident or is the result of systemic problems in existing laws, regulations and practices," Culver said at an event where he signed the order.

Sen. Rich Olive, who heads the Government Oversight Committee, said he'd call in state officials and others involved in the matter to testify.

"This story is, and continues to be, a black eye for Iowa," Olive said.

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