He spoke slowly, his eyes cast downward as one of his bosses hovered nearby.
“I want to go home … and see my momma,” said 27-year-old L.C. Hall, a developmentally disabled man that reporter Margaret Engel and I interviewed in December 1979.
We discovered Hall and 60 other disabled men eviscerating turkeys at an Iowa meat plant. They were housed in an abandoned schoolhouse and cleared $70 a month after deductions for rent and other fees from their already-meager paychecks.
Outrage poured in. Investigations began, and we thought our front-page story in The Des Moines Register would change things.
Iowa state officials finally did shut down the Atalissa, Iowa, bunkhouse. Not a month after the story ran. Not a year. But 30 years later — in February 2009 — shortly after the Register re-discovered the same outrages.
While the U.S. government preaches the evils of modern-day slavery to the rest of the world, advocates for people with mental disabilities complain that same government has looked the other way for decades as employers, and some care givers, subjected mentally disabled U.S. citizens to slave-like abuse.
In a similar case in Kansas, horrific abuse of mentally ill residents of an unlicensed care facility in Newton continued for more than 20 years — much of that time with the full knowledge of state and federal officials.
In that case, mentally ill residents were forced to work in the nude and perform sex acts as their care givers, Arlan and Linda Kaufman, videotaped them.
It was only after attorneys for the Justice Department’s human trafficking prosecution unit entered the case that the Kaufmans were prosecuted.
They were convicted in November 2005 of violating the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, including its provisions prohibiting forced labor and involuntary servitude.
Arlan Kaufman is serving 30 years, and his wife is serving a 15-year sentence.
“The fact that abuses continued in the Kaufman case is beyond comprehension. The system, supposedly designed to protect those in need, simply failed,” said Jeff Lanza, a retired FBI agent who helped investigate the Kaufmans and now speaks publicly on human trafficking issues.
While no human trafficking charges have yet been filed in the Atalissa case, the employer, Henry’s Turkey Service, has appealed $900,000 in proposed fines for alleged violations of state labor laws. And roughly 15 pounds of investigative documents from the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation have been turned over to the Muscatine County attorney’s office.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Iowa also is investigating. While there may be another case for violation of the federal human trafficking law in Atalissa, it will more likely be prosecuted as a federal wage and hour case.
Either way, advocates contend the abuse in both cases could have been stopped much sooner had U.S. officials simply enforced laws and regulations that already are on the books.
“These delays were outrageous,” said Curtis Decker of the National Disability Rights Network. “Exploitation and trafficking of the disabled goes on right in front of us, and we don’t see it.”