A sad story came out of California in 2012 regarding developmentally delayed adults living in residential centers. Over a four-year period, 36 patients at California’s “board-and-care centers” for the developmentally disabled had claimed they had been raped by caretakers. And yet, their reports were ignored by the Office of Protective Services--the state police force tasked with protecting residents of group homes--and were never referred to the local police for investigation. Officers failed to order even a single rape examination, which is critical for successful prosecution of alleged offenders. At least one alleged offender was accused of later raping yet another patient. Additionally, hundreds of cases of abuse and unexplained injuries among the state’s 1500 patients who live at the five developmental centers have been reported, but few arrests have been made. This report highlighted a particularly ugly truth: individuals with disabilities, both children and adults, are at a far greater risk of physical or sexual abuse and neglect than are non-disabled persons.
It is difficult to determine accurately the rates of abuse of disabled children because child protective service agencies do not usually include in their data whether the victim has a disability or not. Yet, multiple studies indicate a clear relationship between abuse and disability, and the rates of reports of abuse of individuals with disabilities are high. Whereas 10% of non-disabled children experience some form of abuse (e.g., neglect, physical, or sexual), one third of children who receive special education services are abused. Thus, children with disabilities are 3.44 times more likely to be abused than their non-disabled peers.
In particular, individuals with developmental disabilities are at extreme risk of sexual abuse. Whereas at least 20% of women and 10% of men are sexually abused in the United States, the rates are astronomical for persons with mental retardation or other developmental disabilities. More than 90% of people with developmental disabilities will be sexually victimized at some point in their lives. Yet, only 3% of these incidents will even be reported.
Why are the disabled so vulnerable and who is abusing them? Research suggests that 97 to 99% of the time the victim knows and trusts the abuser. The disabled are abused both inside the home and outside the home. Perpetrators may be family members, residential care staff, or other personal care assistants. Inside the home, families with special needs children may function under extreme stress: emotional, financial, physical, and social. The children themselves may present with incredibly challenging behaviors pushing parents who are already overwhelmed. Children and adults who are cared for outside the home in residential placements lose the protection afforded them by their families. These children and adults may be cared for by multiple providers who often assist in personal care, leaving the disabled vulnerable to abuse.
And should abuse occur, it is so much harder for these children and adults to tell. First of all, they may not even recognize that they have been abused or that something illegal has happened to them. Persons with communication challenges may have trouble telling others about the abuse. Even should the victim understand that abuse has happened, he or she may be unwilling to report it due to dependency on a caregiver or the fear that care or affection could be withheld should they report. Additionally, many individuals with special needs are trained to be compliant; they may not know how to reject the abuse. And finally, children and adults with special needs who understand they have been abused experience many of the same emotions their non-disabled peers have: shame, fear of not being believed, and helplessness.
When children and adults do tell, social service agencies and the police are often uncomfortable dealing with abuse in the disabled. Social service agencies may lack trained experts experienced with both abuse and disability, impeding the investigations of alleged abuse. Courts are not taking into account the different needs and abilities of persons with disabilities. Additionally the reliability of children or adults who communicate in non-traditional methods, such as interpreters, facilitated communication, or communication boards, is often unfairly questioned rendering the victims as non-credible witnesses.
We all need to recognize that disabilities make children and adults more vulnerable, not less, to abuse. So what can be done to help prevent this abuse? Although it is imperative that providers know how to screen for abuse, persons with disabilities, where ever practical, should be taught what is inappropriate behavior on the part of others and in ways they can understand. Families need to know all the personnel who may be working with their children and know how to recognize potential abuse and how to report it. Agencies that work with children and adults need education on how abuse is manifested in persons with disabilities of differing ages, staff training on reporting abuse, and more rigorous employment practices (e.g., background checks). If it takes a village to raise a child, it is going to take a village to protect a child. And, this painful issue of the potential for abuse cannot be ignored and must be addressed in IEP goals and transition plans before the student enters the adult system of services.