DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa's social-services agency acknowledged Tuesday that it looked into a company's treatment of its mentally disabled meatpacking workers as early as the 1970s, but decided it lacked the jurisdiction or enough evidence to act.
State officials say the 21 Texas men lived for decades in a battered house in the tiny eastern Iowa town of Atalissa and were paid little for their work. The fire marshal closed the living quarters Feb. 7, the men were placed in state custody and a state agency is considering criminal charges.
Social workers, however, had looked into the workers' housing situation twice before without taking action: once in the 1970s and again in 1997, according to a 38-page file discovered about two weeks ago at the Human Services Department's Muscatine County office.
"I'm not going to debate whether I would have done something differently 35 years ago," Gene Gessow, the agency's director, said in a statement. "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."
His department said the file was incomplete, making it "difficult to put all of the decisions in context."
Last week, Gessow referred to the newly discovered file in his testimony before the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee, which was looking into the state's response to the situation. A redacted version of the file was made public on Tuesday.
The men lived at a 106-year-old house that locals called the bunkhouse. The city of Atalissa owned the home, and city officials recently acknowledged that some of its doors were padlocked, windows were boarded up and the heating system was broken, leaving only space heaters.
The men worked for Henry's Turkey Service, a Texas company that provided labor for a meatpacker near Atalissa in West Liberty. Recent inquiries showed the company diverted much of the mentally disabled men's paychecks and government payments to living expenses, leaving them about $65 a month in wages.
The file said that in 1975 Henry's Turkey Service was an ancillary firm of Hill Country Farms, based near Goldthwaite, Texas, and described that company's work as social and vocational training of mentally disabled men. It was unclear where operations for Henry's Turkey Service are now located.
There was no answer on Tuesday at a telephone number listed for Hill Country Farms and an attorney who represented Henry's Turkey Service in previous Iowa matters said he wasn't authorized to comment.
The state file includes a Dec. 4, 1974, memo from social worker Ed George, who tells district manager James Strickland that the mentally disabled men lack adequate housing and are deprived of their families, among other problems.
George wrote that once a man becomes an employee of Henry's Turkey Service "he for all practical purposes loses most basic human rights."
"There is absolutely nothing worth saving in their program," he wrote. "True, we must get more handicapped people employed in the community, and work must be done in this area, but not in Henry's exploiting manner."
Strickland, however, commented more positively on the conditions in a Jan. 23, 1975, memo to Muscatine County supervisors. He wrote that "there seems to be good group spirit and morale, and it would seem to us that a cohesive group exists here."
The memo outlines conditions at the bunkhouse.
"The living quarters are not tastefully decorated, in good repair or maintained in high standards," Strickland wrote. "But they are warm, adequate, and maintained by the men themselves."
Strickland's memo said the men would be monitored, with quarterly reports written, but no follow-up reports were found.
Also in the file are e-mail exchanges from 1997 between human services officials that were apparently prompted by a reporter's inquiry. In the e-mails, the department notes that despite concerns about the treatment of men at the bunkhouse, it doesn't have jurisdiction to intervene because there was no allegations of abuse of a dependent adult.
Last week, Gov. Chet Culver signed an executive order creating a task force that will recommend how state law can be tightened to prevent similar events.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.