Mentally Challenged Iowa Workers Awarded $240 Million - News and Weather For The Quad Cities -

Mentally Challenged Iowa Workers Awarded $240 Million

Updated: May 1, 2013 10:27 PM CDT

It is a big award. Federal jurors ruled in Davenport Wednesday that Henry's Turkey Service has to pay 240 million dollars in damages for what government lawyers call years of "around-the-clock abuse".

More than 30 mentally challenged workers were supervised by Henry's for decades at the West Liberty processing plant, and at the Atalissa bunkhouse where they lived. Money was taken out of the workers' social security checks for room and board. And it paid for a place with pad-locked doors, boarded up windows and no heat. Mental health experts now tell us there were rats and insects. And testimony in this trial exposed verbal and physical abuse taking place there as well.

"If you didn't do your work right, they would pop, hit, you or something," John Owens told us four years ago. He described problems with care-givers, saying "They holler at you sometimes." And there were problems with the building itself. Kenneth Jackson said, "I wanted to get out of there. It could have collapsed and everyone would have been dead." He called the bunkhouse home for more than 20 years, saying it was what he knew, but told us being forced to move was a welcome relief.

Four years later, those who work with people with disabilities say they welcome this multi-million dollar judgement. Nancy Martel is the Senior Vice President at the Handicapped Development Center. She says, "We were pleased that the jury and judge agreed with us, that that was a travesty, and there was a big judgement against them."

It's a 240 million dollars judgement, which works out to 7.5 million for each worker. But the company is now gone, so getting the payout could be a problem. Martel says it's not about the money. "People have their own apartments. They have their own money now. They have a decent life. But someone still robbed them of 20, 25 years of their regular life."

She says this award sends a message, saying, "We can do better than that. And we are doing better than that for the most part." Agencies are in place now that didn't exist decades ago. There are laws on the books to police them. And, there is an increased awareness about the mentally challenged and the right way to treat them. "The only way it can impact is if people are educated," Martel says, "And they say, if I see something like this going on in my community, I'm going to insist the authorities do something about it and stop it. That's the only way it makes a difference."

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission brought the lawsuit. Jurors deliberated for a day and half before reaching the decision that Henry's violated the Americans With Disabilities Act, and should pay millions.

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