PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The federal government has reached a settlement with Rhode Island and the city of Providence for violating the rights of the disabled by segregating them at a vocational school and an employment program where they were “robbed of years of productivity,” a Justice Department official said Thursday.
The settlement resolves violations of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act for about 200 individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities at the Harold H. Birch Vocational School and the state-licensed Training Thru Placement program.
Under the terms of the settlement, the state and city will help disabled students at Birch prepare for “real jobs” and the state will make sure that Training Thru Placement participants get employment and other services in more integrated community settings.
“For far too long, people with disabilities who can and want to work and engage in all aspects of their communities have been underestimated by the public service systems that serve them and have provided limited or no expectations of them,” Eve Hill of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in announcing the settlement.
She said disabled individuals were “robbed of years of productivity, learning and contributing to their communities.”
Federal and state officials called the resolution a landmark and “transformative” settlement.
Hill said the Justice Department continues to look into the state’s employment and day service system for disabled individuals, though she would not elaborate. U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island Peter Neronha would not comment on whether a criminal investigation was underway.
The Justice Department investigation found the city of Providence failed for years to meaningfully integrate students while they were at Birch, where most participated in a “sheltered workshop” doing manual labor, including assembling jewelry, for little or no pay.
The city made little effort to link students to integrated employment after they left the school, the department said. Instead, the school served as a pipeline to the Training Thru Placement program in North Providence, where officials said disabled individuals were also unnecessarily segregated from the community and worked for extremely low wages. The average was $1.57 an hour, but one employee got 14 cents an hour.
The U.S. Labor Department said Thursday it had revoked Training Thru Placement’s authorization to pay disabled individuals less than the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour after an investigation found “willful violations” of federal labor law. Officials said Training Thru Placement failed to determine appropriate subminimum wages and falsified documents.
George Ference of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division called the falsifications “very egregious,” saying some records were simply made up. He said employees would be able to collect back wages.
In April, the city shut down the workshop at Birch, which operates out of Mount Pleasant High School, and removed the school’s principal. Schools Superintendent Susan Lusi called what happened there “a lack of oversight and system failure on multiple levels.”
Craig Stenning, director of the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, which oversees Training Thru Placement, said no new individuals will be put into sheltered workshops and all such workshops will be eliminated in the coming years. The workshops are separate buildings, usually within another institution, that employs people with disabilities.
Stenning said the department started investigating complaints about Training Thru Placement last fall. It put the provider on notice in January and demanded a corrective action plan. Because of the program’s continued noncompliance, Stenning said, the state in March took what he called the unprecedented step of handing day-to-day operations to an outside provider, Fedcap.
Fedcap has launched two new vocational programs in culinary arts and facilities management at Training Thru Placement. Fedcap CEO Christina McMahon said work to make other improvements is going “very well.”
Under the settlement agreement, individuals at Training Thru Placement will get support for accessing jobs in typical work settings alongside non-disabled employees and customers. They will work at least 20 hours a week at competitive wages.