Human trafficking, pernicious as it is, can take many forms.
But once it’s exposed, the government agencies charged with protecting the most vulnerable among us usually put a quick end to it.
That was not the case in the brutal, blizzardy winter of 1979 in a tiny Iowa hamlet called Atalissa.
There, in a drafty former schoolhouse, two investigative reporters for the Des Moines Register came across L.C. Hall and 60 other mentally disabled men.
Former wards of Texas state schools for the disabled, they had been shipped to Iowa by a labor broker to work at a job few others would accept: eviscerating turkeys at a meat plant.
They earned $70 a month after deductions for their meager accommodations and other questionable costs. Hall, 27 years old at the time, told the reporters, “I want to go home to see my mama.”
After the story ran on the front page of the Register in December 1979, outrage poured in and investigations began.
Iowa state officials shut down the Atalissa bunkhouse and rescued its abused, work-weary trafficking victims. But it didn’t happen a month after the story ran. Or even a year later. In fact, it wasn’t until February 2009 — 30 years after their plight was revealed — that the 32 remaining men were finally rescued.
Why it took so long and what additional indignities were visited upon these vulnerable, trusting men in the intervening years has been eloquently and lamentably laid out in a new book by New York Times columnist Dan Barry.
“The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland” clearly and engagingly explains the problems and constructs the arc of evolving public understanding of mental disabilities over that 30-year period.
Barry’s narrative is gentle and respectful toward these men. Many were rejected or mistreated by their families, who turned them over to the state of Texas, which eventually passed them on to a labor broker.
An expert witness in a later court case over their treatment sums it up for Barry’s readers: “They were hidden away for decades. They were isolated. They were relegated to hazardous living conditions. They were subjected to abuse and neglect. They sustained physical and psychological injuries and they suffered irreparable harm due to a loss of lifetime opportunities.”
Barry can rely only on hazy memories and scant records to describe one of the men, Alford Busby. He was an “ever-present blur of the bunkhouse, defining yet undefined … his middle initial was ‘J’ or maybe it was ‘E.’ He was tall, or he was short; he had a pronounced limp, or he didn’t limp at all; he was a puppy dog, following around supervisors he called momma and poppa, or he was a fiercely proud black man.”
The other men say Busby — who was either 37 or 43 at the time — got angry one night in January 1987 when he was sent to his room for not properly performing some task. That’s when he disappeared into a snowstorm. It would be spring before they found his body.
As Barry makes clear, there’s plenty of blame to go around for what happened in Atalissa and why it took 30 years to put a stop to it. During that time, the men’s paychecks never changed, but their treatment only got worse.
There were state bureaucrats finding ways to make it someone else’s problem; there were arcane federal rules for “subminimum wages”; and there were townspeople who could have asked more questions.
Then there was the Des Moines Register, which didn’t follow up on its 1979 stories until 2009, when an enterprising and dogged Register reporter named Clark Kauffman got yet another tip about the bunkhouse and never let go.
Barry’s book can’t right all those wrongs, but it at least documents them eloquently, and in a more permanent way.
Yet that shouldn’t lighten the load on anyone, including the Register reporters who wrote the original 1979 stories and later moved on to other jobs, confident that it would all be fixed but never making sure it was.
And I should know: I was one of them.
As for L.C. Hall, those who knew him say they are not aware that he ever saw his mama again. He died in 2014.
Mike McGraw was part of a Kansas City Star reporting team that produced a 2009 award-winning series that highlighted the U.S.’ weak enforcement of human trafficking laws. McGraw retired from The Star in 2014.
The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland, by Dan Barry (335 pages; Harper; $26.99)