Rape of the Disabled: The Issue No One Wants to Discuss
In the past four years, residents with developmental disabilities at the state of California’s board-and-care facilities have filed 36 reports of molestation or rape by caretakers. Just reading those figures — which are very likely higher as many of these residents have intellectual, speech and other disabilities that make communication difficult — is alarming and all the more if you are, like me, the parent of a teenage autistic child who will be living in some sort of group home or other setting all too soon.
Even more alarming is that, as SFGate.com reports, the Office of Protective Services, the police force assigned to protect residents at California’s five developmental centers, did not carry out “even the simplest tasks” in investigating alleged crimes of sexual assault. Doctors and nurses at California’s five developmental centers are not trained to deal with sexual assault victims,†SFGate.com also reports.
Most other police departments use a “rape kit” to collect evidence that is all the more crucial given the vulnerable population of the developmental centers. The examination, performed in a hospital by nurses, is considered the “best way to find evidence of sexual abuse”; without any physical evidence, solving sex crimes can be difficult to the point of impossible.
The Rape and Pregnancy of Jennifer
Police at the developmental centers simply did not order a hospital examination in any of the cases. Documents obtained by California Watch found that, of those 36 reports from 2009-2012 about molestation, forced oral sex and vaginal lacerations, only one arrest was made.
In the following case, an investigation opened by the Office of Protective Services did not proceed because the case relied very much on the verbal accounts of a now 32-year-old woman, Jennifer, who has severe intellectual disabilities, says SFGate.com:
Many of the allegations were lodged by patients at the Sonoma Developmental Center in the town of Eldridge, where female patients have been repeatedly assaulted, internal incident records show. In one case, a caregiver was cleared by the police department of assault and allegedly went on to molest a second patient.
In another case, from August 2006, caregivers at the Sonoma center found dark blue bruises shaped like handprints covering the breasts of a patient named Jennifer. The patient accused a staff member of molestation, court records show. Jennifer’s injuries appeared to be evidence of sexual abuse, indicating that someone had grabbed her violently.
Jennifer became pregnant in the following months, during which the alleged attacker “disappeared.” Her parents are raising her five-year-old son and are suing California’s Department of Developmental Services. “I just imagine her being raped and screaming and crying for me. It just kills me,” says her mother.
In September, California governor Jerry Brown signed two bills that required the state “to alert outside police and a disability protection organization when patients die under suspicious circumstances, are abused or are seriously injured.”
The state agency that overseas the Office of Protective Services is now “working to improve sex-assault investigations and … hiring outside experts to train officers and detectives.”†But these efforts seem not only too late, but too little.
Rape and Individuals With Disabilities: The Topic No One Wants To Talk About
Protecting individuals like Jennifer, my son Charlie and so many others from sexual assault is a topic that no one wants even to bring up. In general, the topic of sexuality is one that most people dance around, sometimes by referring to it via euphemisms like “safety” and “hygiene.”One unstated reason is the resistance to acknowledge that yes, children with disabilities grow up and become teenagers and adults with disabilities who have all the hormonal and sexual urges as any of us. If an individual, like Jennifer and my son Charlie, has intellectual disabilities, there is a tendency to presume that she or he is “always” a kid and best to at stay hush-hush about these subjects.
One sign that we are stuck in thinking about autism and developmental disabilities as children’s issues, and in prioritizing the needs of children over adults, was the absence of any discussion of issues of sexuality, sex education and, yes, rape and sexual assault at a recent Congressional hearing on autism.
Silence and squeamishness do our children and all individuals with disabilities no favors. Of course children with disabilities go through puberty, a confusing period for any child that can be even more so for a child with minimal communication skills and minimal peer interactions. I know my son is very vulnerable. We more than appreciate the staff at his school; we are glad that everyone must have background checks and their fingerprints on file.
Besides taking essential precautions including making sure Charlie is never, ever alone, medical personnel, police and other first responders must all be trained. Procedures and protocols — like a rape kit and one that takes into account the numerous communication, intellectual and other disabilities of individuals Iike Charlie — needs to be developed and all personnel trained to use it.†Developing policies to protect Charlie and so many other individuals with disabilities is absolutely crucial as we seek to make this world a better and yes, safer, place for all to live in in.
Not being able to say you were raped shouldn’t be a reason to not investigate and to just let the attacker disappear.
Related Care2 Coverage
Photo from Thinkstock