Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Book Review: The Boys in the Bunkhouse by Dan Barry

There had to be something better than an institution. What if young men with intellectual disabilities could be (re)integrated into communities? That's the simple and well-intended start to the ultimately horrific real-life events detailed in Dan Barry's The Boys in the Bunkhouse, which comes out today.

In the late 60s, Texas sought to close its state schools for boys with intellectual disabilities. So, the state worked out a win-win-win (or so it seemed) - the boys would go to work for farmers and ranchers. The farmers and ranchers got cheap labor, the boys learned agricultural skills and received wages, room and board, and the state could save money by closing its institutions.

The titular "boys" ended up living in the "bunkhouse" in Atalissa, a small town in Iowa. They spent their days eviscerating turkeys for Henry's Turkey Service. Dan Barry leads readers through a promising start to their journey. They held jobs and took some pride in earning a living. The community embraced them, as they sang at church and danced at the local bars. Somewhere along the way, things went horribly wrong.

After several decades, the bunkhouse had fallen into disrepair, and became a cockroach-infested fire trap. The boys suffered awful emotional and physical abuse. They were often forced to work through injuries, and suffered degrading punishments. And the money... what happened to all the money they earned over their decades of turkey hanging? One "boy" (the boys were now elderly men) ended his career with about $80 to his name.

To Barry's credit, he provides a balanced account that recognizes the complexity of the situation. It would have been easy to paint a picture of dastardly cartoon villains (although the bunkhouse managers come close) and focus solely on the abuse. The truth is that there were a lot of failures along the way, but also a few successes that by no means make up for the abuse.

I often found myself asking questions while I read. Where were the boys' families? Why didn't the townspeople realize things had gotten so bad? Why didn't any of the agencies follow up on the reports of trouble? Why didn't the owners - who the book paints as actually caring for the boys - keep better tabs on things despite their apparent health problems? The missed opportunities to correct the problems are heartbreaking.

I'm posting this on my law blog, so I should mention that Barry does a masterful job of sprinkling in some legal issues without getting bogged down in technicalities. For example, the FLSA includes a minimum wage exemption for individuals with intellectual disabilities (they may be paid a sub-minimum wage "in proportion to the wage and productivity of experienced workers who do not have disabilities"). Barry also mentions some important historic precedent, like Buck v. Bell (1927 Supreme Court decision allowing compulsory sterilization of the intellectually disabled). There's also a chapter near the end (SPOILER ALERT) about the EEOC crushing Henry's Turkey Service in the courtroom (actual EEOC press release here).

Barry does a great job of covering a broad range of topics and timeframes, without it feeling like he's jumping around. It's a smooth ride. For all of the sorrow, Barry also provides some feel-good moments and - without revealing too much - the "boys" do get some redemption in the end.

This book forced me to think through some difficult policy issues. Frankly, humanity has always struggled to compassionately care for individuals with disabilities. The Boys in the Bunkhouse emphasizes the dignity of the individual, regardless of any intellectual disability; and, the disturbing consequences of failing to protect them.

Disclaimer: The publisher provided me with an advance copy of the book; I received no other compensation and the copy was provided with no conditions.