Governor Chet Culver calls the living conditions in an eastern Iowa "bunkhouse" where 21 mentally retarded men lived "deplorable" and he vows a crackdown on any similar facility in the state. On Thursday, a tipster called a state hotline to report suspicions of abuse and, on Saturday, state officials closed down the 105-year-old building, which was owned by the City of Atalissa and rented by a Texas-based company called "Henry’s Turkey Service."
"They lived in a place that had no heating system and boarded up windows. In fact, reports indicate the boiler had been out for several years," Culver says. "On top of that, there are serious concerns about the ways in which this company was handling the finances for these men for their work."
The men worked in the West Liberty Foods meat processing facility, but "Henry’s Turkey Service" controlled their finances, according to state officials, and that included collection of federal disability payments. Iowa Department of Human Services director Gene Gessow says all 21 men have now been interviewed by experts and classified as dependent adults.
"We are trying, to the extent possible, to keep these gentlemen together," Gessow says. "They have lived together a long time." The youngest resident is 39 years old. The oldest is over 70 and Gessow says the group of 21 men has lived in Atalissa for over 20 years.
Plywood covered many of the windows in the 105-year-old building in which the men lived and space heaters provided the only warmth in the facility. The home was unlicensed, but in 2001 and again in 2005 the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals received complaints about the facility. Gessow, the director of the Department of Human Services, says his staff is looking through his agency’s records. "Our initial determination is that the first time that we, as a department, became aware of the situation was when we received a call to our abuse and neglect hotline on Thursday evening," Gessow says. "But that is the first D.H.S. contact."
This afternoon, the Muscatine County Attorney asked a judge to issue an emergency order placing the 21 men under the protection of Iowa Department of Human Services. Officials say West Liberty Foods withheld money from the mens’ paychecks to cover housing and other services "Henry’s Turkey Service" claimed to be providing the men. The mens’ home was several miles from the turkey processing plant, but accessible to the town of Atalissa, which owned the building.
"There are a lot of very good questions about how we got to this point," Culver says. "…I think the response from the state has been swift and that’s my focus right now is holding anyone and everyone accountable for this deplorable situation." Culver says his staff is reviewing state rules and regulations and will probably changes to ensure the state has greater authority to inspect facilities like the one in Atalissa.