Is Justice For All…Even for Victims with Intellectual Disabilities?

Victims of crime who have intellectual and developmental disabilities face significant barriers when accessing the justice system. This became starkly evident in a recent case from Connecticut. Richard Fourtin was convicted of sexually assaulting a twenty-five year old woman with significant intellectual and physical disabilities including cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus. In the case of Fourtin v. Connecticut, the Connecticut Supreme Court overturned the conviction earlier this month, finding that the woman could have used “gestures, biting, kicking and screaming” to indicate her lack of consent to sexual intercourse. In response, The Arc of Connecticut signed onto an amicus curiae brief with other disability agencies and they are working toward revising state laws regarding victims with disabilities.

This case ignited fury among disability and victim advocates alike because the prosecution seemed to place blame on the victim for not doing what she either was incapable of doing (many victims freeze when they are being assaulted and are not sure how to respond or wonder if doing so could result in personal injury) or perhaps didn’t realize she had a choice to do. She may not have realized the actions against her were criminal. People with disabilities often don’t understand or appreciate what is happening to them when a sexual assault occurs, especially when they haven’t been taught what acts are considered a crime. Most people with disabilities experience violence more than once throughout their lives, and if they are living in a pattern of abuse, it is especially hard for them to recognize the criminal nature of an offender’s behavior.

Ongoing education to prevent sexual violence must be a priority in our advocacy communities due to the sheer number of people this problem affects, and the resulting untold, devastating consequences it has on so many lives. We must also concentrate on educating lawmakers, law enforcement and the courts about issues of victimization of people with I/DD. Consider this data from the National Crime Victim Survey (revised):

  • In 2010, the victimization rate for people with disabilities was almost twice the rate among  people without disabilities.
  • Serious violence (including rape and sexual assault) accounted for about 50% of violent acts against people with disabilities.
  • People with cognitive disabilities (which includes intellectual and developmental disabilities) experienced the highest rate of violent victimization.

October is National Crime Prevention Month, it’s a great time for chapters of The Arc and other advocates to support crime victims with intellectual disabilities.. Reaching out to local victim assistance agencies and offering education and support in their effort to help crime victims with disabilities is a great first step. Consider partnering together in a media campaign about preventing the victimization of people with disabilities. Support self-advocates who are beginning to speak up for themselves against violence in their lives by helping them develop brief presentations about this topic that they can take to the community (schools, police departments, rape crisis centers). And, let’s band together to be sure our support of people with I/DD extends to making sure crime victims are not victimized again by the criminal justice system. Find out more about victimization and criminal justice issues on The Arc’s website.