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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