persons, places and things: Protecting our vulnerable citizens


By Barb Arland-Fye

The exploitation of 21 men with mental retardation in Atalissa, Iowa, alarmed and saddened my husband and me.

Could that happen to our older son, Colin, after we’re gone?

Last fall, a man in a position of authority committed an indiscretion against our 21-year-old son who is autistic. The man told Colin not to tell his parents, but because Colin trusts us, he did. We reported the incident, which resulted in serious consequences for the other man. But chances are that Colin will outlive us. What happens then?

Will his younger brother look out for him? Will society?


Newspaper and television accounts about the Atalissa men indicate that they had been taken advantage of for years. Originally from Texas, the men were working at a meat-packing plant and living in an old, unheated schoolhouse with boarded-up windows and other safety hazards. They reportedly saw just $65 a month of the money they had coming to them. Those supposedly looking out for their welfare apparently pocketed the rest.

Only after the news media investigated the situation did authorities in Iowa take action to close down the house and move the men to safer living quarters.

Now people seem to be falling all over themselves to help these men, but why did it have to get to this point? How many similar situations exist in Iowa or other states?

Iowa’s Joint House and Senate Government Oversight Committee began hearings a couple of weeks ago about the situation. Iowa Gov. Chet Culver has created a Dependent Adults Task Force which, among other things, will review laws, policies and procedures regarding the care and employment of dependent adults with mental retardation and identify and recommend ways to prevent their mistreatment. The task force will submit its report and recommendations to Gov. Culver by April 1.

While Iowa’s response is commendable, another action the governor has taken makes me question the commitment to prevent exploitation from happening again.

An excellent Quad-City Times editorial in the Sunday, Feb. 22, edition, points out that proposed state spending cuts threaten the mental health system that works day in and day out with people with developmental disabilities and mental illness.

“Most of us grimace when we read about mentally retarded people being cared for improperly — as was apparently the case in Muscatine County — or see mentally disabled people in our communities sleeping under bridges or in our parks.

“But most of us will never have to get our hands dirty, so to speak, by getting directly involved. For that, we rely on the tireless and unselfish efforts of our mental health professionals,” the Times editorial said. That’s why the newspaper opposes Gov. Culver’s across-the-board spending cuts.

A day earlier, the Times published a letter from the mother of an adult son with mental retardation. She wrote that spending cuts affect people in existing programs and don’t even address those people without services.

Among the service providers that would be affected by the funding cuts are Handicapped Development Center and the Vera French Mental Health Center in Davenport.

Letter writer Christina Harper urges readers to contact their legislators and advocate for mental health funding. “We cannot allow the exploitation of and indifference toward our most vulnerable population.”

Catholic social teaching calls for us to protect the most vulnerable among us – from the womb to the tomb. I plan to contact my legislators and do my part.

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