What Should Everyone Know About Abuse?

By Nora J. Baladerian, Ph.D.

As I thought about writing this blog, I wondered, “what do I wish that everyone could know about abuse?” My first thought was I would want everyone who is a person with intellectual or developmental disabilities (I/DD) or their loved one, to know that abuse can happen to anyone… everyone. Having a disability is not a protection. Many parents and teachers have told me, “well, no one would abuse my child/the children I teach… because they have disabilities.” Their belief blinds them to the reality that abuse not only does happen to kids and adults with disabilities, but in fact it happens more to people with than without disabilities.

The most recent surveys confirm this. In February 2014, the National Crime Victim Survey noted that among those between ages 12-15, those with disabilities were victimized three times more than their non-disabled peers. The 2012 National Survey on Abuse and Disability (7,289 responses) found that 70% respondents with disabilities reported abuse in their lifetimes. And, of these, 90% said that it happened multiple times, and 46% said it happened too many times to count.

Of course it is important to study the problem of abuse to know the extent of the problem. Then it is time to take the next step:  Help the survivors, and make efforts to reduce the risk of abuse. This means, make plans to reduce the risk that abuse will happen to each child and adult with a disability. It also means to make sure that each crime victim receives the psychological support they will need. Finally, it means that the criminal justice system should be available to individuals with disabilities… which it is not now.

The 2012 National Survey showed that nearly half of crime victims did not report the abuse, and of these most did not report, believing that their report would not result in any legal action against the perpetrator. Those who reported the crimes, 54% found that their reports did not result in any legal action. This shows that the fears of those not reporting were well-founded. And, this points us in a direction for reform. What can be done to ensure equal justice is available for crime victims with disabilities?

I believe these findings give us the information needed to design a plan of action. A written  plan of action has been in place at least since 1997, when the California Think Tank on Abuse and Disability convened in Los Angeles, CA and created a plan for the state. Perhaps now, these ideas can become reality. The most essential pieces of the plan include:

  1. Give every parent/careprovider/conservator a copy of the “Ten Tips on Abuse & Disability” to learn that abuse does happen, and the steps to take if it does. If parents and careproviders do not believe it happens or can happen, they will not protect their children nor be aware of what they should do and say when abuse is revealed to them. Parents are taught many things, but this essential area is ignored. ENOUGH! Every physician, psychologist (or other mental health practitioners), disability services agency, school, etc. should make sure that parents are aware and ready to protect their child. By simply handing them the “Ten Tips,” a one page guide, the parents’ have been given their first step: awareness, information, and resources.
  2. Every agency/organization providing services to crime victims and/or people with disabilities should receive an annual one-day training on abuse issues: incidence and prevalence, perpetrator information, risk-reduction strategies and support for survivors.
  3. Every law enforcement professional (patrol, detective, investigator, captain; prosecutor, judge, etc.) should receive at least one day of training each year on the aspects of interacting with individuals with disabilities, conducting a thorough investigation, knowledge on specialized interviewing skills, and in particular familiarization with the daily life of individuals with disabilities and the programs/ individuals who serve them. Budgets for training have always been identified as a barrier, but another is the interest level and commitment of those in charge of training. We have to continue to knock at the doors of agencies, until such training is a standard part of their training package.
  4. Every medical professional working with people with disabilities (that’s all of them, I think!) and mental health professional should be required to have at least one day training on working effectively with people with disabilities, with a particular awareness of the role abuse plays in their lives. Specialized therapies for crime victims with disabilities should be a part of the training of all trauma specialists and crisis and disaster responders.
  5. Most importantly, all individuals with disabilities should be provided information about abuse, maltreatment and assault. They should be able to understand what it is. They should have a plan designed for them or with them by their parents/carers, so they know what is happening if an assault happens, what to do before, during and after. The parents and carers should also receive education, information and training on what they should do before and after their loved one experiences violence.

I believe that it is my duty, and that of others, to do what we can within our scope of work and life, to ensure the well being of individuals with disabilities. I don’t know why I believe that, exactly, but it has turned out that that is my life’s work. I do not say that should be everyone’s work!!!  But, I think that within each of our job duties, there is something we can do to be a part of the solution.

The Arc of the US, and the Disability and Abuse Project, among others, have committed to develop resources that are easily accessible.  Visiting their sites monthly would be a good idea to stay up to date on availability of resources.

References:

U. S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, (2012)  NCJ240299 Crimes Against Persons with Disabilities,2009-2012.  Statistics Tables. Retrieved on 2/26/14 from http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=4884

Baladerian, N., Coleman, T., Stream, J., (2013) Abuse of People with Disabilities Victims and Their Families Speak Out:  A Report on the 2012 National Survey on Abuse of People with Disabilities, retrieved on 4/1/14 from http://www.disabilityandabuse.org/survey

Baladerian, N.,  (2014) from A Risk Reduction Workbook for Parents and Service Providers, Spectrum Institute. Retrieved on 4/4/14 from http://www.disabilityandabuse.org/resources/ten-point-guide-to-abuse-response.pdf

 

Dr. Nora Baladerian is the Director of the Disability, Abuse and Personal Rights Project in Los Angeles, CA; she has worked in the area of abuse of people with disabilities since 1972. She is a former Board Member of the National Committee to Prevent Elder Abuse and Advisory Board Member of the American Bar Association’s Council on Victims. Dr. Baladerian is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Certified Sex Therapist and Board Certified Crisis Responder. She is the Project Coordinator for the Disability and Abuse Project of Spectrum Institute, and from 2000-2006 the Director of the CAN Do! Project, Child Abuse & Neglect Disability Outreach at Arc Riverside.

Celebrating World Down Syndrome Day While Seeking Justice for Individuals with Down Syndrome in Today’s Society

On March 21st, 2014, the world will celebrate the ninth annual World Down Syndrome Day. While people with Down syndrome have made significant strides in education, employment, and independence, there is so much more we can do as a society to ensure people with Down syndrome have the opportunity to enhance their quality of life, realize their life aspirations and become valued members of welcoming communities.

Ethan SaylorThe wrongful death of Ethan Saylor is just one example of the work left to do. Ethan, a 26-year old Frederick man who happened to have Down syndrome, died senselessly in the hands of three off-duty Frederick County Sheriff’s deputies in a movie theater in January 2013. Ethan’s death was tragic and avoidable. NDSS has advocated, alongside the Saylor family, for Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland to ensure that law enforcement, first responders and other public officials all receive the very best training regarding interaction with people with disabilities and for the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to conduct an independent investigation into the death of Ethan Saylor. Emma Saylor started a change.org petition, which has gained over 370,000 signatures, calling for Governor O’Malley to investigate the death of her brother Ethan. In September 2013, Governor O’Malley issued an Executive Order establishing the Maryland Commission for Effective Community Inclusion of Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. This is Maryland’s chance to lead the way for other states on these critical issues, and ensure Ethan’s legacy lives on forever.

Just a few weeks ago in Atlanta, Georgia, Judge Christopher McFadden overturned a jury’s guilty verdicts against William Jeffrey Dumas. Dumas was convicted of repeatedly raping a young woman with Down syndrome in October 2010. According to his ruling, McFadden claims that a new trial is necessary because she did not behave like a rape victim. Even as we celebrate World Down Syndrome Day, these moments of blatant discrimination deserve our attention. NDSS condemned the judge’s actions and through an op-ed response demanded that the state of Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission begin proceedings to remove him from office. We can all get involved by supporting a change.org petition calling for McFadden’s removal; and that justice is done with the conviction being reinstated.

Last week in Plaquemine Parish, Louisiana, a mother of a baby, Lucas, who happened to have Down syndrome, was charged with his death after poisoning him—an action that deserves condemnation and for which justice must be sought.

While we can take pause today and celebrate the achievements of people with Down syndrome all around the world, we must be reminded that for us to fully achieve our mission of equality and inclusion, we must ensure that all people with Down syndrome and other disabilities are valued, respected members of their communities. The work and partnership of The Arc’s NCCJD and NDSS is vitally important to making sure people with Down syndrome and other disabilities have the right to a meaningful life in their communities, whether it’s through a career of their choosing, a living arrangement of their liking, recreational activities of their selecting, or just friendships of their electing. We, as the national advocate for people with Down syndrome, want to be sure what happen to Ethan Saylor and other tragic, unfortunate cases never happens again.

National Down Syndrome SocietyNDSS is proud to partner with The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability (NCCJD), a national clearinghouse on criminal justice and disability issues funded by Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice, that provides resources, information and referral, training, technical assistance and evaluation for criminal justice and disability professionals and programs. To that end, NDSS continues to be dedicated to issues that prevent harm, abuse, and victimization of individuals with Down syndrome. Unfortunately, we learn about these tragic, unfortunate, and senseless cases involving individuals with Down syndrome every day; and we seek to advocate on the behalf of these individuals and their families as they seek justice. To that end, NDSS continues to be dedicated to issues that prevent harm, abuse, and victimization of individuals with Down syndrome.

The Arc Supports The Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act

The Arc released the following statement in response to the introduction of S.2054, the Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act, introduced by Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) and co-sponsored by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

“The rights of students, many who have a disability, in boot camps and residential programs are too often compromised due to the lack of oversight of these facilities. We applaud Senator Murphy and Senator Harkin for standing up for these teens who have suffered abuse and for their parents who in many cases were not aware that their children were being abused. Ensuring the safety of our children in residential programs should be a top priority. We urge Senators to support this important legislation,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

The Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act will help end the abuse of children in boot camps and residential programs by setting minimum standards including prohibiting the withholding of essential food, water, clothing, shelter, or healthcare; prohibiting physical or mental abuse; improving the collection of data; requiring reporting of serious injuries and deaths to the Protection and Advocacy agency in that state or territory; and requiring transparency of these programs so parents can view the records of residential facilities and make the best decisions for their children.

The Arc Urges U.S. Supreme Court to Protect Constitutional Rights of People with Intellectual Disability on Death Row

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Hall v. Florida, a death penalty case concerning the definition of “mental retardation” (or intellectual disability (ID) as it is now called) that Florida uses in deciding whether an individual with that disability is protected by the Court’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in the Atkins v. Virginia case that executing inmates with ID is unconstitutional as it violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“Florida is clearly violating the Supreme Court’s Atkins v. Virginia ruling and the Court must reaffirm its commitment to the rights of people with intellectual disabilities in our criminal justice system. Freddie Lee Hall has an intellectual disability, and Florida’s effort to flaunt the professional standards on IQ testing to end someone’s life needs to be stopped by the highest court in our country. It is immoral and unjust,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

The Hall case centers on whether the state may establish a hardline ceiling on IQ, refusing to consider whether anyone with an obtained IQ above that level may actually have ID, despite the fact that use of such a ceiling undermines the purpose of IQ testing and the professional judgment of the diagnostician, among other things. In Hall, the Court has been asked to address Florida’s decision to draw the line at an IQ of 70. Based on the professional expertise of two leading professional organizations in the field, the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA), it is universally accepted that IQ test scores must be interpreted by taking into account the standard error of measurement that is inherent in IQ tests. That means that any IQ test score is best understood as a range, rather than a single score: a score of 70, for example, is best understood as indicating that the person’s “true” IQ score is most likely between 65 and 75.

In addition to IQ testing, numerous expert evaluations have documented Freddie Lee Hall’s disability. Before the Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins, a Florida trial court found that Hall had ID “all of his life”. His family recognized his disability in early childhood and teachers repeatedly noted his intellectual disability. The lower court records also include findings of severe and violent abuse of Hall during his childhood.

The Arc has participated in a number of cases on this issue before the Supreme Court including Atkins v. Virginia. The Arc’s amicus (friend-of-the-court) brief was cited by the Justices in support of its ruling that the Constitution protects all defendants with ID. On December 23, 2013, The Arc submitted an amicus brief for the Hall v. Florida case.

Through a two-year grant for $400,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), The Arc is developing the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability. This project is creating a national clearinghouse for research, information, evaluation, training and technical assistance for justice and disability professionals and other advocates that will build their capacity to better identify and meet the needs of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, whose disability often goes unrecognized. Providing accurate, effective and consistent training for criminal justice professionals is critical.

The Arc Reacts to Startling New Bureau of Justice Statistics on Crimes against People with Cognitive and Other Disabilities

This week, The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released a report on Crime Against Persons with Disabilities, 2009–2012 – Statistical Tables.  Disabilities are classified according to six limitations: hearing, vision, cognitive, ambulatory, self-care, and independent living.  Among persons with disabilities, those with cognitive disabilities experienced the highest rate of violent victimization (63 per 1,000).  Violent crime against persons with disabilities was nearly three times higher than the rate for persons without disabilities.  The rate of serious violent crime—rape or other sexual assault, robbery and aggravated assault—against persons with disabilities was nearly four times higher than that for persons without disabilities in 2012.

The Arc, which is running the new National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability with a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance, released the following statement on the data:

“This startling data illustrates what we are hearing from self-advocates, parents, caregivers, and others within our chapter network and the disability community – people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are at particular risk of being victims of crimes of all kinds.  It’s a serious problem that we must no longer ignore or treat as a peripheral issue.  In order to effectively address this silent epidemic of unaddressed abuse and victimization among people with disabilities in the U.S., we must have support from all levels of the community – disability advocates, law enforcement, victim advocates, legal professionals, elected leaders, community advocates, and people with disabilities themselves who know all too well the trauma of victimization and the devastation of receiving little or no support.

“The Arc’s new Center on Criminal Justice and Disability aims to be a comprehensive resource to help turn these statistics around so that people with disabilities can lead safer lives in their community and access support and begin to heal when victimization occurs,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

The Arc’s new National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability is the first national effort of its kind to bring together both victim and suspect/offender issues involving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) under one roof.  The Center launched its new website earlier this week.

The Arc Reacts to Department of Justice’s Inspector General Beginning Investigation into Storefront Sting Operations Involving People with Disabilities

Washington, DC – In response to the news that the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Inspector General will be investigating storefront stings in four of the cities that used people with intellectual disability (ID) to facilitate operations without their knowledge, The Arc released the following statement:

“We are pleased that the Inspector General is taking this important step, as we requested in our letter to the agency, to find out how these operations that used people with intellectual disability could have occurred, and we hope that the results of this inquiry are the end to this practice across all operations conducted by the Department of Justice.  Because of the unique challenges people with intellectual and developmental disabilities face in the criminal justice system, as either suspects, offenders, or victims, they should not be used as pawns or informants by ATF agents or other law enforcement officials. We are working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to determine how The Arc can help train federal agents to recognize intellectual disability and keep this population out of their operations,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.  “Many people needing help in the criminal justice system have disabilities that are not easily recognizable, and we hope to raise awareness among law enforcement nationwide about ‘hidden disabilities’ to increase the safety and protect the rights of people with I/DD.”

When The Arc first learned that storefront sting operations were entrapping and exploiting people with ID and then charging some for the crimes ATF agents asked them to commit, we reached out to the U.S. Department of Justice expressing our concerns.  Since then, The Arc has met with high-level officials within the DOJ and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to discuss these cases and offer assistance with training of federal law enforcement officials.

The Arc Reacts to Maryland Commission’s Report on Community Inclusion in the Wake of the Robert Ethan Saylor Tragedy

Recently, the state of Maryland’s Commission for Effective Community Inclusion of Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (I/DD) released their initial report.  Created in September by Governor Martin O’Malley, the Commission is charged with bringing to life accurate, effective and comprehensive attitudes, policies, and supports that will guide first responders in their work with people with I/DD.  Representing The Arc on the Commission is Joanna Pierson, Executive Director of The Arc of Frederick County.

The Commission conducted a national review of materials and approaches in the area of I/DD, examined the status of training in Maryland, looked at how community inclusion efforts over the years have impacted people with I/DD, and determined next steps in their process.  Now the Commission is hosting listening sessions across the state that The Arc will participate in.

“The Commission has started an incredibly important dialogue in Maryland about how to bring more awareness to communities across the state about people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  Too often, we hear of instances where law enforcement is approaching a situation involving a person with an intellectual or developmental disability from a crisis perspective.  We need to change this approach so that our first responders are first made aware of how to engage people with disabilities so that things don’t escalate into a crisis as they did with Robert Ethan Saylor.  The Arc Maryland is ready to provide this training support with a program that involves people with disabilities, as suggested by the Commission.  We think it is vitally important that any training and awareness brought about by this Commission’s work should be inclusive of all types of intellectual and developmental disabilities so that we can make our state safer and more inclusive for all,” said Kate Fialkowski, Executive Director, The Arc Maryland.

In October, The Arc Maryland conducted an introductory training entitled “Law Enforcement Response to Developmental Disabilities” at the Governor’s Fall Criminal Justice Conference.  In an “Ask Me” format, individuals with developmental disabilities led this training.

At the national level, in October The Arc was awarded a two-year grant for $400,000 by the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) to develop the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability.  This is the first national effort of its kind to bring together both victim and suspect/offender issues involving people with I/DD under one roof.  The goal of this project is to create a national clearinghouse for research, information, evaluation, training and technical assistance for justice and disability professionals and other advocates that will build their capacity to better identify and meet the needs of people with I/DD, whose disability often goes unrecognized, and who are overrepresented in the nation’s criminal justice system – both as victims and suspects/offenders.

“Just a few months into this project, and we are already seeing just how great the need is nationally for resources, information, training, and support around this issue. It shouldn’t take another tragedy like the death of Robert Ethan Saylor to bring the kind of focused attention this issue deserves, and we look forward to working with the Commission to make Maryland’s communities safer for everyone,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

The Arc Calls on Department of Justice to End Tactics and Thoroughly Investigate Allegations that People with Disabilities Were Exploited in Sting Operations

After reading news reports of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) agents engaging in entrapment and exploitation designed to prey on the intellectual disability of individuals whom ATF agents sought to engage in their stings, some of whom have been prosecuted for their participation, The Arc is calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to take action.

In a letter sent to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder yesterday, The Arc outlined the following action items to take in the wake of the scandal:

  • Establish an immediate investigation into the ATF practices which led to the news reports;
  • Ensure an immediate halt to all practices which exploit people based on their intellectual and/or developmental disability (I/DD);
  • Require ATF to suspend any ongoing investigations that are targeting people known to have I/DD;
  • Develop and implement a training program for ATF agents nationwide that provides specific information on how to identify persons with I/DD, and establish protocols to ensure they are no longer targeted or sought out as informants due to having a disability;
  • Encourage the Inspector General to escalate the investigation to cover ATF more broadly and bring the investigation to conclusion sooner rather than later; and
  • Petition the courts for equitable redress where people with intellectual disabilities are serving time for crimes initiated or furthered by the actions of ATF agents.

“Without a firm repudiation of the reported behaviors by ATF agents, the public and the disability community, in particular, will lose faith in a department which it trusts to protect its rights, not to entice vulnerable people into legal trouble.  The Arc is committed to working closely with the appropriate federal agencies to inform protocol and training development for ATF agents, and be of assistance on this important matter as needed,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

The Arc has worked extensively over the years with many staff and officials in the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to ensure that the rights of people with I/DD are protected throughout mainstream community life and within the criminal justice system.  We have seen remarkable progress in implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Olmstead decision, particularly in recent years.  DOJ has continued its commitment to these issues, most recently awarding The Arc a grant to create a National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability to bridge the gap between the disability and law enforcement communities, creating access to justice and safer lives for people with I/DD.

Below is the entire letter to Attorney General Holder.

 

The Honorable Eric Holder

Attorney General of the United States

U.S. Department of Justice

950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20530-0001

 

December 12, 2013

 

Dear Mr. Attorney General:

The Arc of the United States has worked extensively over the years with many staff and officials in the U.S. Department of Justice to ensure that the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) are protected throughout mainstream community life and within the criminal justice system.  We have known very competent, inspiring, and visionary DOJ employees working over many decades to ensure full participation for people who face significant barriers in everyday life.  We have seen remarkable progress in implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Olmstead decision, particularly in recent years.  We are now looking forward as we begin an exciting new chapter with DOJ start-up funding of a new National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability.

With DOJ’s commitment to the protection of rights of people with disabilities, we were appalled to read news reports of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) agents engaging in entrapment and exploitation designed to prey on the intellectual disability of individuals whom ATF agents sought to engage in their stings, some of whom have been prosecuted for their participation.  The targeting and use of people in this way, exploiting their disabilities, flies in the face of the excellent work of the Civil Rights division in pursuing full implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Olmstead decision.  This reported behavior, if true, by a federal department charged with protecting the rights of people with disabilities must not be allowed to continue.

While this information is appalling, unfortunately, it is not surprising to The Arc.  This type of injustice against people with I/DD occurs more often than the general public realizes. Individuals with I/DD are over represented in the criminal justice system and often used by other criminals without I/DD to carry out criminal activity. They typically have limited, if any, understanding about their involvement in a crime or consequences of being involved in a crime.  With few options for or opportunities to build safe relationships, their strong need to be accepted by peers in their own communities can create a unique vulnerability that people without I/DD do not experience.

If the media stories about the ATF are based in truth at all, we believe that the harm done to individuals by agencies of their government is so egregious that the following actions are needed immediately:

  • Establish an immediate investigation into the ATF practices which led to the news reports;
  • Ensure an immediate halt to all practices which exploit people based on their intellectual and/or developmental disability;
  • Require ATF to suspend any ongoing investigations that are targeting people known to have I/DD;
  • Develop and implement a training program for ATF agents nationwide that provides specific information on how to identify persons with I/DD, and establish protocols to ensure they are no longer targeted or sought out as informants due to having a disability;
  • Encourage the Inspector General to escalate the investigation to cover ATF more broadly and bring the investigation to conclusion sooner rather than later; and
  • Petition the courts for equitable redress where people with intellectual disabilities are serving time for crimes initiated or furthered by the actions of ATF agents.

Without a firm repudiation of the reported behaviors by ATF agents, the public and the disability community, in particular, will lose faith in a department which it trusts to protect its rights, not to entice vulnerable people into legal trouble.  The Arc is committed to working closely with the appropriate federal agencies to inform protocol and training development for ATF agents, and be of assistance on this important matter as needed. The goal of The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability is to bridge the gap between the disability and law enforcement communities, creating access to justice and safer lives for people with I/DD.  We stand ready to assist you in addressing these issues.

 

Sincerely,

 

Peter V. Berns

Chief Executive Officer, The Arc

 

cc: Cecilia Munoz, Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council

 

 

Disability Case at the U.S. Supreme Court – What You Need to Know

Supreme Court of the United StatesEarlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Hall v. Florida, a death penalty case concerning the definition of “mental retardation” (or intellectual disability (ID) as it is now called) that states may use in deciding whether an individual with that disability is protected by the Court’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in the Atkins v. Virginia case that executing inmates with ID is unconstitutional.

Numerous expert evaluations have documented Hall’s disability.  One psychologist’s examination found organic brain dysfunction and severe cognitive impairment, possibly due to repeated head trauma; neuropsychological testing showing severe brain impairment.  Another psychiatrist found that Hall is chronically psychotic; that he suffered violent child abuse; has organic brain damage and is paranoid. The lower court records include findings of severe and violent abuse of Hall during his childhood.

The Hall case is the first case the Supreme Court has taken on the issue of the death penalty for defendants with ID since the Atkins decision, which indicates that there could be a further clarification of states’ responsibilities under that decision.  Specifically, the Hall case centers on whether the state may establish a hardline ceiling on IQ, refusing to consider whether anyone with an IQ above that level may actually have ID (despite the fact that such a ceiling violates the nature of the tests involved and the professional judgment of the diagnostician, among other things).  In Hall, the Court has been asked to address Florida’s decision to draw the line at an IQ of 70.

The Arc strongly believes that every individual with ID should be protected from the death penalty and applauds the Court’s decision to hear this case.  In the past, The Arc has participated in a number of cases on this issue before the Supreme Court including Atkins v. Virginia.  Participating in an amicus (friend-of-the-court) brief in the Atkins decision, The Arc’s  brief was cited by the Justices in support of its ruling that the Constitution protects all defendants with ID.  Since 2002, The Arc’s advocates have been actively involved in the implementation of the Atkins decision in the Federal and State courts across the country.

The Hall v. Florida case is not the only case pertaining to this issue in the news right now. Earlier this year, Warren Hill’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to halt his execution because he has ID was denied.  Hill’s lawyers filed a petition directly to the Supreme Court, stating that they had evidence proving Hill has ID.  However, in Georgia (where Hill was convicted), ID must be proven by the defendant “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the strictest standard in the country.

Many people in the disability community share The Arc’s belief that states should not be allowed to create a stricter or more limited definition of ID than the professionally accepted clinical definition of ID. To do otherwise allows the states to execute some people with ID while protecting others. This approach violates the intent of the Atkins decision.

The Arc will be closely following Hall v. Florida as it moves through the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014.

Sexual Abuse of People with I/DD a Global Scandal

By Theresa Fears, MSW. Theresa has been working in the field of sexual abuse prevention of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities for 13 years. She created the Partnership 4 Safety program at The Arc of Spokane. The Arc has recently launched a National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability to address some of the issues highlighted by Theresa and provide resources for people with I/DD who are in contact with the criminal justice system.

rate of sexual abuse graphicSexual abuse of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) is a huge problem.

Children and teens with I/DD are three to four times more likely to be sexually abused than are those without disabilities. Some researchers estimate that the lifetime rate of abuse of adults with disabilities is as high as 90 percent.

Childhood sexual assault has lifelong consequences. Childhood sexual assault has been connected to depression, posttraumatic stress disorder and an increased risk of sexual abuse in adulthood.

Adult victims of sexual assault may experience the trauma of not being believed or of being blamed for the attack and risking displacement from their homes or residences. Sadly, many victims do not receive therapy to help deal with the trauma of an attack. In a recent study, only 33 percent of victims received therapy after their sexual assaults. There are many false beliefs about those who offend. The most common is that they are strangers, but according to a number of authors, between 97 percent and 99 percent of assaults were committed by someone the victim already knew. Approximately 44 percent of the perpetrators were connected because of the victim’s disability. Perpetrators may include special education teachers, bus drivers, caregivers and other support personnel.

Research on risk factors for sexual assault of people with I/DD has been consistent over the last 20 years. The frequently reported risk factors are:

  • Lack of education about sexual development  and anatomy
  • Lack of information on abuse awareness
  • Lack of healthy relationship education
  • Lack of social norm education
  • Lack of age-appropriate friends

If sexual assault is a problem, then what is the solution? Prevention! There are three levels of prevention according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary prevention takes place before harm has occurred; its purpose is to stop sexual abuse from happening.

Secondary prevention happens immediately after abuse has occurred; its purpose is to prevent it from happening again. And lastly, tertiary prevention is a response to the harm of sexual abuse — generally therapy.

The CDC has recommendations for creating prevention programming based on years of evaluating what works and what doesn’t.

Providing prevention programming across the lifespan would require offering education to parents of people with I/DD and, children, teens and adults with I/DD.

The logical place to begin primary prevention therefore is with the caregivers of young children — the parents.

A solid parent education program should have three goals:

  • To  increase parents’ understating of  the rates of abuse and risk factors
  • To explain parental obligation to support children’s development as sexual beings and
  • To teach parents how to identify and challenge inappropriate or dangerous behaviors of any adult in a child’s life.

How can you begin a prevention program at your agency? First, look to the programs you already have for a natural fit. It would be easier to add sexual abuse prevention training to a parent education, information, support and advocacy program than it would to an employment program for example.

A good free parent education program is the “Where We Live” curriculum created by Pittsburg Action Against Rape (www.pcar.org/special-initiative). Although it is not written for children with I/DD, it can be easily modified. I would be happy to share this information with Apostrophe readers who are interested in beginning parent education in their community.

http://www.cdc.gov/traumaticbraininjury/pdf/VictimizationTBI_Fact%20Sheet4Pros-a.pdf

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_abuse_of_people_with_developmental_disabilities#cite_note-5

This article first appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Apostrophe Magazine (October-December).