Mentally Disabled Children Forced To Work For No Pay, Lawsuit Says

The Harold Birch Vocational Program did help its students get jobs. Jobs that paid 50 cents an hour. It's tough for disabled people to find work. In addition to whatever physical and mental challenges they may have, they often face discrimination in the workplace. As a result, vocational schools are often vital to integrating them into the workforce.

That's what makes the accusations in a recent lawsuit against a Providence, R.I., vocational school so distressing. According to the complaint, filed by the U.S. Justice Department, the school -- part of a public high school -- grossly mistreated developmentally disabled children, forcing them to work for little or no pay for years. The U.S. Department of Justice filed the complaint last Thursday accusing the Harold A. Birch Vocational School, part of Mt. Pleasant High School, of disability discrimination, contending that students -- many of whom had autism or Down syndrome -- were forced to work for little or no pay in a jewelry-making workshop, segregated from the rest of the student body. Upon graduating, the students -- who were between the ages of 14 and 21 -- were sent to the Providence-based Training Through Placement program, which the DOJ complaint says treated them in a similar fashion.

The DOJ complaint centers on the charge that the TTP program failed to "integrate" students into both the school-at-large and the workforce. Integrating disabled people into the mainstream workforce, of course, is a central aim of Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The complaint told the story of one unnamed student:

One person who has worked at TTP for approximately 30 years said that he asked the provider nearly every year to work in a hardware store, yet he has never been assessed or received services or supports necessary for him to work in an integrated setting, let alone a hardware store. When asked how he would feel about working in integrated employment, this consumer stated, "I'd feel I accomplished something ... something to be happy about."

The alleged mistreatment was documented as early as 2011, when the Providence school board issued a warning about the Birch program. Taveras, for his part, says that he had no knowledge of the situation until the federal investigation was launched in January. The complaint says that the low pay and poor conditions followed the workers through all their tasks, from applying buttons to clothing to assembling jewelry.

"We all let these kids down," Providence Mayor Angel Taveras told Rhode Island television station WPRI. Taveras has since shut down the program. And before the complaint was even filed, the principal at Mt. Pleasant resigned, and the two heads of TTP -- owners John Capobianco Sr., 67, and his son John Capobianco Jr., 40 -- were arrested on charges of embezzling funds, according to a separate WPRI report. The arrest report by the North Providence police claims that Capobianco Jr. stole about $3,000 a month that came the organization's way from the federal government. The Capobianccos turned themselves in to Providence police on April 8, but they've pleaded not guilty to all charges as they await trial.

The state's Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, which is responsible for overseeing the Birch program, had no comment for WPRI. Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee had no comment for The Associated Press.

Taveras, for his part, says the state will next focus on how the money from the programs has been spent. "There are people who benefited financially from this. ... Who were they -- did they know what was going on?"

And he says that the Providence Public Safety Commissioner may open a criminal investigation into the matter.

The struggles faced by workers with disabilities of all kinds is well-documented. As AOL Jobs has reported, roughly half of young people with developmental disabilities that register on the autism spectrum struggle to find any work at all, let alone are paid legal wages for their labor.

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Nancy Jorden

I am looking for new ways to experience learning. I want to find a school that does a good job. Is there a place that I can go to?

April 16 2014 at 7:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Phillius Thomas

It's human nature, to take advantage of anything you can to get ahead. It's good that there are people to help those who can't help themselves, but there aren't enough.

January 30 2014 at 3:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tiffany McDonald

To me this is horrible. These ignorant people always make some type of excuse to not have these kids succeed. Just because they have a mental issue, doesn't mean they aren't smart.
My brother is autistic, but since he is non-verbal, he is considered low functioning. So because of Blue Mountain School District's stupidity, they will not let him learn more ASL, which we have used since he was first diagnosed so he can communicate. We don't feel he needs to use a machine to talk for the rest of his life.
Plus they make their kids work in the high school if they in life skills classes. They make them take the attendance sheets, they make them do laundry; WTF! They deserve an education, not this bull.

July 02 2013 at 2:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Let's think about this. We pay 100,000 or more a year to "educate" these kids and then when they are paid little to nothing for their work, we are suppose to feel bad and angry. Let's feel bad and angry that many of these kids could be educated just as well in their own schools but the parents don't want them at home or at home as little as possible so they are sent to these alternative schools. 100,000 a year to try and make a retard a productive member of society. We will never get a return on that investment. We would be better off going to the ghetto and giving every kid that comes to school $100 a day. No child left behind, some need to be left behind. I might not be politically correct but think about what you are angry about. You are angry at my political incorrect statement instead of wasting 100,000 a year.

June 24 2013 at 9:19 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to dbear4u2's comment
Dan Francis

You disgust me, Nazi.

June 24 2013 at 9:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Dan Francis's comment

Watch it there! Unfortunately this person is right.

My mother worked her entire adult life as a nurse and occupational therapist for mentally disadvantaged children. Most of her clients were surrendered to the state, basically the parents relinquished their parental rights and guardianship. Only a small percentage of the kids had family visiting them, let alone having an active role in making major medical decisions.

Another sad fact is that many of these non profit groups profit off of these kids. Any idea how much grant funding costs to run such programs? While it's wonderful that these kids get the help they need, face it, the funding does come from tax payer dollars. A percentage of these funds go to payroll for administration mind you.

June 25 2013 at 9:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down

I see nothing wrong with this. People should get paid what they are worth. When you look at it like that, getting little to no pay is completely appropriate for mentally challenged people. They should just be lucky someone is giving them something to do at all to fill up thier day.

June 24 2013 at 7:26 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to senatorballoon's comment
Dan Francis

Let's put you on the same standard of no pay then and see how well you do.

June 24 2013 at 9:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Many industries have been taking advantage of mentally, physically and emotionally disadvantaged persons for years. Recycling plants, direct mailing companies and thrift stores are some that I am personally aware of. I saw this in the 80's forward. These companies get tax breaks for hiring disabled persons. Anyone want to question why I do not believe if we give the corporations and wealthy individuals tax breaks that they will reinvest in our economy or reinvest in our courtry. If they are not receiving a financial benefit from it or the extra money is not going into their pockets, they will do nothing.

June 24 2013 at 5:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to swramos's comment

Very true. Also want to add that although its wonderful facially that these kids are working, their productivity is not the greatest. I used to work in a supermarket which employed high functioning mentally disabled kids. Some you had to treat with kid gloves in directing them at their jobs, Again while I feel for those who have kids in these programs, the reality is that these kids are being used for tax breaks, as well as oiling the nonprofit machines. People have no idea how much some of these administrators who run these programs earn. The direcotor in my mother's facility used to earn close to $400K salary.

June 25 2013 at 9:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"Outsourcing" on a local level. Don't have to set up shop overseas.

June 24 2013 at 5:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Come on folks, this kind of treatment to the disadvantaged has been going on for centuries. The people that run the school and work in the school are the same scum that do it every chance they get. The parents should make a stink about it. $1.00 a week!!!!!!!!!!??????

It won't change EVER unless they are exposed and convicted to the full extend of the law.

But probably not, because these stories pop up all of the time.

June 24 2013 at 5:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Pharter McScooter

Another reason to pare down the size of Gubment; at ALL levels...

June 24 2013 at 5:23 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Cyn Bigelow

My Daughter worked for Riverside Resourses in Leavenworth Kansas for more than 6 years. She got paid on average 1.00 a week. They said it was because she didn\'t have to \"work\" but rather she got paid by the \"piece\" they assembled urine test kits. They kept her at the \'workshop\" 8 to 10 hours a day and because it was part of her \"Job Training\" and money wasn\'t really the issue I let it go. She tells me now it was horrible, people making her put kits together. Never receiving any kind of positive response she got angry and ultimately we pulled her out and they sued us for money they claim we owed them. Parents were not allowed in the workshop by the way. From what I hear Riverside Resourses in Leavenworth Kansas is still using the disabled for slave labor. Maybe we should treat them just as the public is treating Paula Dean.

June 24 2013 at 5:00 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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