Can the physically disabled be protected from sexual abuse?

Research reveals that as many as 10 percent of abuse reports in 2009 were from children with disabilities

Topics: The Crime Report, Child Welfare, Sexual abuse, World Health Organization, Advocacy Services for Abused Deaf Victims,

Can the physically disabled be protected from sexual abuse? (Credit: iStockphoto/FarukUlay)
This article originally appeared on The Crime Report, the nation's largest criminal justice news source.

The Crime Report Silence both sheltered and shamed Erin Esposito when she endured sexual abuse that lasted for much of her childhood.

From the age of three until she was a teenager, said Esposito, who was born deaf, her father and two brothers abused her. Confused and scared, she said nothing until her adult life unraveled in a haze of drugs and alcohol.

Part of her recovery has been to recount her experiences.

“I can’t change my past, but I decided and committed myself to make this world a better place so other deaf children don’t go through what I did,” said Esposito, who is now 38 and serves as the Executive Director of Advocacy Services for Abused Deaf Victims, a national non-profit based in Rochester, NY.

One obstacle, according to Esposito who communicated with The Crime Report through a video relay service that uses a translator to communicate in real time, was that “people tend to think deaf and disabled people are stupid and can’t communicate.”

“That,” she added, “makes us a very vulnerable population.”

Reports to child welfare

About 11 percent of the more than 300,000 sexual abuse reports made to child welfare officials in 2009 were from a child with a disability according to the Administration on Children Youth and Families (ACYF), part of the US Department of Health and Human Services.

A  2012 study from the World Health Organization (WHO) found that worldwide children with disabilities are almost three times more likely to be sexually abused  than non-disabled peers. The study also found that children with cognitive or mental health disabilities are nearly five times more likely to suffer such abuse.

“The results of these reviews prove that people with disabilities are disproportionately vulnerable to violence,” Dr Etienne Krug, Director of WHO’s Department of Violence and Injury Prevention and Disability, said in a 2012 press release relating to the study.

“Their needs have been neglected for far too long.”

Editors Note: While many in the deaf community reject the ‘disabled’ label, preferring to be classified as a cultural community, most reports follow medical and legal practice in classifying them as disabled.

Reliable national figures are not available, but in Vermont’s Bennington County for example, the proportion of disabled child sex abuse cases to other child sex abuse cases has risen from almost zero to more than 50 percent in the last seven years, according to Christina Rainville, Chief Deputy State’s Attorney.

There were 151 child sexual abuse investigations in 2011 in Bennington County, and, of those, 35 were substantiated, according to the Vermont report from the Department of Children and Families.

Normally, the State Attorney office prosecutes all substantiated cases, although there are rare exceptions when they do not, and the office sometimes will litigate cases outside of the state agency recommendations, said Rainville.

“I think predators target children with disabilities because these children have a hard time communicating what happens to them,” said Rainville, who has written extensively on the challenges of interviewing disabled young sex abuse victims and prosecuting their cases  for the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Center on Children and the Law.

To address what they consider a lack of  attention to this issue, deaf community advocates such as Esposito have launched a national task force. The group, comprising representatives from the law enforcement, legal and research communities, held its first meeting in Washington DC last month.

It expects to issue a report with full recommendations in two years.

“People with disabilities are largely invisible in our society,” says Nancy Smith, Director
of the Center on Victimization and Safety at the Vera Institute of Justice, a national non-profit based in New York, which convened the task force.

Monique Hoeflinger, Senior Program Officer at Ms. Foundation for Women, which is funding the two-year study, adds that child sex abuse victims generally encounter difficulties in dealing with courts and law enforcement.

“The criminal justice system…. is set up to re- victimize kids,” she claims. “And when it comes to the disabled community, it almost completely fails.

“There are very few services and support for kids with disabilities.”

Difficult to detect and intervene

The daily realities of caring for children with disabilities mean that it can be difficult to detect, report or intervene in cases of abuse.

Numerous helpers and caregivers cycle in out of their lives— From the aides who  change, feed and dress children, to physical therapists and bus drivers who transport the children.

Several of the most notorious cases have been widely covered in the press.

In 2013, a suburban Illinois man was sentenced to eight years in prison for sexually assaulting a developmentally disabled woman. In 2011, an upstate New York man was sentenced to 40 years for molesting a severely autistic boy that he was supposed to be caring for while working for the Central New York Developmental Disabilities Services.

You Might Also Like

The New York Times detailed systematic abuse taking place in homes for disabled persons in a 2011 series.

At the same time, those who care for children with disabilities feel they don’t have the tools or relationships to educate their clients about sexual abuse.

“We would love to get someone in from the outside  (law enforcement) to speak to us,”  said Tracey Hoffman, a  social worker coordinator at United Cerebral Palsy Association of Nassau County Inc., in Roosevelt, NY. Association Staff has been working to address sexual abuse issues for over a decade, but with limited success in reaching the students and families, Hoffman said.

Their school-based program, Children Learning Center, which serves young people from 2 to 21 years old, runs two workshops to educate them on unwanted sexual behavior.

One program for younger children, “No, Go, Tell” goes over stranger danger, inappropriate touching and asks them to identify immediately whatever seems uncomfortable for them. A technique called “Circles” helps them identify the people they trust most, with the most trustworthy (such as family numbers) in the first circle, and aides and caregivers are placed in a third or fourth circle.

Nevertheless, students often put caretakers in the first circle.

“It’s so difficult to get the concepts across,” said Hoffman. “The kids don’t get that aides and social workers are not their family. “

She also said that programs are only in place for the children that have more cognitive awareness and ability. The more developmentally disabled kids don’t attend programs.

Julie Ann Petty, project trainer for Partners for Inclusive Communities at the Arkansas University Center on Disabilities at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and a member of the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities hopes to close the gap between law enforcement and the disable community.

She counsels disabled adults who have been abused as children, and also works to educate the larger community about interacting with persons with a disability.

Training police

Petty, a married mother of two with cerebral palsy, believes law enforcement training is key to helping the disabled community report more crime and abuse to official channels.

“Law enforcement (authorities) are not comfortable with people who have disabilities,” said Petty.  “(For example) I have no control of my body and people might be scared of that.”

Massachusetts recognized the barriers to communication between the disability community and law enforcement in the late 1990s when a high profile sexual and physical abuse case against two individuals with a disability forced the state to change its procedures, said Elizabeth D. Scheibel, former District Attorney for the Northwestern District.

Scheibel chaired the statewide task force that eventually formed in 1999: “Building Partnerships for the Protection of Persons with Disabilities.”

“if we are not allowing disabled people equal access to the criminal justice system then shame on us,” said Scheibel.

The partnership, which Scheibel deems a best practice, formalized a memorandum of understanding between all the district attorneys in the state and adult and child protective services that typically investigate cases.

Law enforcement authorities are also trained how to work with the disabled community—in particular, with children reporting a crime.

Rainville, whose forthcoming book, Justice for Juveniles with Disabilities, will be released by the ABA’s Center on Children and the Law later this year,  likes to tell the story vstory of her first client—a young girl with cerebral palsy—as a way of illustrating how authorities can address the challenges of working with disabled child victims.

The girl let investigators know she was molested by drawing graphic pictures and words of what happened to her in the sand.  The technique allowed investigators to identify 11 different people, many  of whom turned out to be known sexual offenders.

“It made us realize that we can communicate in ways that we’re able to hold up in court,“ Rainville said.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>