Sexual Abuse

People with disabilities experience various types of abuse. In a recent study, 41.6% of the disabled reported they had been sexually abused. The clinical definition of “sexual abuse” is any assault or crime of a sexual nature performed with a minor or nonconsenting adult. Yet many disabled people don’t even know what sex is, and are not able to understand that what was done to them was wrong. Others can’t talk or have difficulty communicating that someone abused them. Sadly, sometimes relatives or caregivers are the abusers and the disabled are afraid to complain about the people they rely on for daily care or economic needs.

In addition to dependency on service providers, those who are abused often have little choice about who provides services to them. They do not hire a care facility’s employees and do not know if they have been properly screened. Other reasons cited for the prevalence of sexual abuse are isolation of the disabled who do not have opportunities to communicate with others who might observe signs of abuse.

In 2012, the Disability and Abuse Project of Los Angeles performed an extensive survey of the disabled, their families and those who work with them. In that survey, 90% of individuals with disabilities who reported abuse said they had been abused more than once and 46% had been abused so frequently they lost count of the number of times they had been assaulted.

Importance of Background Check

One example of sexual abuse in the Canton, Ohio area was due to the failure of the service provider to perform a background check on an employee. Caring Hands, a Stark County facility for the disabled, hired Daryl Scott Burton as a transportation aide. Burton had a theft conviction in Ohio and an extensive criminal history in Michigan, but no one discovered his criminal past.

The president of Caring Hands said he never checked the man’s background and assumed it had been checked by another member of his staff. Burton was charged with raping a developmentally disabled woman in the parking lot of a fast-food establishment. He wasn’t driving the bus that day, but he working for Caring Hands at the time of the assault. Burton’s rape charge was later reduced to patient endangerment, but the facility was shut down for a pattern of serious non-compliance with state law for two years including a failure to complete background checks on its employees.

Often individuals with developmental disabilities have been traumatized by sexual abuse, but they do not have access to support and services that provide opportunities for recovery. Frequently they cannot express what happened or why they went along with the activity.

For example, Disability Ohio, an advocacy group that researches sexual abuse, described in a recent report an incident where an individual who went to visit a neighbor was abused when the neighbor walked her home and sexually assaulted her in a hallway. The victim told police she did not resist because she “didn’t want to make the neighbor mad.” The neighbor was charged in the incident but the case never went to trial.

Disabled Experience Trouble with Credibility

Studies have shown there is, in effect, a “credibility bias” against the developmentally disabled. Their stories of abuse simply aren’t believed. Individuals with developmental disabilities can be thought to be unworthy of trust because their verbal abilities, mental acuity and concept of time are different than that of a victim who does not have a disability.
Disability Ohio also reported that one woman told caregivers that she had been fondled by a staff member in the day program she attended. A medical exam was performed but no injury or trauma was found. Her report was determined to be “unfounded.” She had a history of sexual abuse and she was counseled not to confuse the past with the present. Her story was not believed. No sexual abuse recovery therapy was scheduled.

Ohio law requires that employees of the Developmental Disabilities system make reports of suspected abuse to a law enforcement agency, the local county board of developmental disabilities or the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities (ODODD). They have instituted a “no wrong door” policy in which all reports of abuse are accepted regardless of whether they are reported to the correct person or agency.

Since this policy is unofficial, and there is a high turnover rate of direct care employees in Ohio, one disadvantage of the program is that there will be employees who have not been trained about reporting requirements and will not have an understanding about what to do if they witness patient abuse. They also may not realize the importance of immediacy in this type of reporting.
Another problem with sexual abuse of the disabled, according to the study done by Disability Rights Ohio, is that law enforcements officers and prosecutors sometimes lack sufficient training to identify and accommodate the unique needs of all individuals, especially the disabled, during investigations of sexual abuse.

Often these cases do not result in convictions for abusers even if there are eye witnesses to the crime which was the case in an instance Disabilities Ohio reported on. A woman who could not talk was raped by a direct care worker who had a history of sexual offenses. An eye witness observed the attack. The case did not go to trial because the prosecutor said the collected evidence was insufficient, particularly with a nonverbal victim.

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