PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Rhode Island and the city of Providence violated the rights of the developmentally disabled for years by unnecessarily segregating them at a city school and a state-licensed employment program where they worked for long hours at low wages, the U.S. Justice Department said.
In letters to the city and state last week, the department's Civil Rights Division alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act at the Harold H. Birch Vocational School and the Training Through Placement program.
The Justice Department said Birch operated a "sheltered workshop" where intellectually and developmentally disabled students worked long hours doing manual labor, including bagging and assembling jewelry, for little or no wages.
Students were given little choice but to participate in the workshop, according to the letter to the city, and at least one former student said she was forced to spend full days in the workshop when it had deadlines to meet. Birch had contracts with private businesses, and Training Through Placement sometimes subcontracted work to Birch.
The city failed to provide services to "meaningfully integrate" students while they were at Birch, the department said, and found little evidence the city made any efforts to link them to integrated employment after leaving the school.
Rather, Providence and its public school department helped create what the Justice Department called a "direct pipeline" from Birch to the Training Through Placement program, in North Providence, where officials say disabled individuals were also unnecessarily segregated and worked for extremely low wages.
The department said that during the last 25 years, only a handful of students were placed in supported employment after leaving Birch, which operates out of Mount Pleasant High School and serves about 85 students ages 14 to 21. Officials said students placed at Training Through Placement typically stay for 15 to 30 years and "receive few opportunities to experience integrated services or settings."
The program's website says Training Through Placement provides light assembling, sorting, packaging and other work.
WPRI-TV first reported on the investigation.
Providence Mayor Angel Taveras said that he was saddened and outraged by the Justice Department's findings and that the city had let down its most vulnerable students.
"Disabled students have a civil right to live productive and fulfilling lives," he said in a statement. "At the Birch School we have failed the most vulnerable students among us."
Taveras said the city shut down the program at Birch and removed the school's principal in April as soon as it learned what was happening. Spokesman David Ortiz said the mayor has been in contact with Providence's public safety commissioner about whether a separate criminal investigation is warranted.
Providence Superintendent Susan Lusi said the federal investigation uncovered serious deficiencies in operation and oversight at the Birch school.
"Our families trust us to equip students with the greatest degree of knowledge and skills possible," she said in a statement. "With the operation of the sheltered workshop, the district and school failed that mission for these students over the last two decades."
Christine Hunsinger, a spokeswoman for Gov. Lincoln Chafee, had no immediate comment on the Justice Department's findings. Deborah Varga, a spokesman for the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, which oversees Training Through Placement and similar programs, said the department had no comment because of "ongoing discussions" with the Justice Department.
A message was left for the interim executive director of Training Through Placement.