On any given day in the United States, someone with an intellectual disability becomes the next victim of violence, and usually without much notice. This month, for example, a house manager at a group home for adults with intellectual disabilities in Maryland was charged with multiple counts of assault and reckless endangerment for physically abusing a resident. No one would’ve ever known, except the assault surfaced in a YouTube video providing clear evidence of the crime. And, one ESPN producer reached out to The Arc and other disability organizations recently about a story involving a coach accused of sexually assaulting a 15-year old participating in Special Olympics. Upon further research into the issue, the producer was so alarmed by the sheer number of people with disabilities who are sexually assaulted that they requested others to speak out in an effort to expand their report.
To the shock and disbelief of many, these disturbing instances of violence are commonplace in the lives of people with disabilities. The National Crime Victim Survey reveals that people with disabilities are twice as likely to become victims of crime compared to those without disabilities. Even more alarming, people with intellectual disabilities are more likely to be victimized compared to those with other types of disabilities (such as physical disabilities). The Arc receives calls from all over the country – from concerned family members, friends and people with disabilities themselves – seeking help and answers. They often need to know what to do next, where to get legal assistance, how to help an attorney understand intellectual disability, and how to find a qualified counselor to work through the trauma of victimization. Traditionally, victim advocates and disability advocates have not shared expertise and resources to address this issue, but that has slowly been changing over the past few years, creating more opportunities for victims with intellectual disabilities to obtain much-needed services and supports.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness month and this week, April 21-27, is Crime Victim’s Rights Week. It’s a perfect time for chapters of The Arc, other service providers and advocates to reach out to their local victim assistance agencies alerting them to the high risk of violence and victimization that people with intellectual disabilities face throughout their lives. The Office for Victims of Crime created a guide in 2012 for states wanting to take a team approach, bringing together law enforcement, prosecutors, adult protective, human services and self-advocates, to ensure equal access to the criminal justice system for people with disabilities. And The Arc offers fact sheets on a wide variety of topics including the Abuse of Children with Intellectual Disabilities and People with Intellectual Disabilities and Sexual Violence.
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.
The Arc of Delaware County is appalled at the senselessness of the recent attack on a woman with disabilities in Chester, Delaware County. According to Frank Bartoli, Executive Director, “This was a savage and cruel act on a person with a disability.”
People with disabilities are far too often targets of crime. This extreme example of bullying calls for better public awareness and sensitivity training in our schools. What possible circumstances would lead teenage girls to think these acts would meet their needs for notoriety. The Arc hopes this horrific incident leads to a forensic analysis of the events and that lessons are learned so that persons with disabilities are treated with equal respect. The Arc believes that this incident draws attention to the need for students with and without disabilities to be educated together, to learn from each other and to value each other as peers and friends.
The Arc has a long history of standing up for the rights of people with disabilities and The Arc stands ready to assist local law enforcement in their investigation and to assist other people with disabilities who may need our assistance.
WASHINGTON, DC – Peter V. Berns, the CEO of The Arc of the United States, released the following statement regarding the alleged crimes committed against four individuals with disabilities in Philadelphia discovered over the weekend.
“The horrifying news out of Philadelphia about the four people with disabilities locked up in deplorable conditions is inexcusable and the justice system must get to the bottom of this case. People with disabilities are often the target of violent crime, in fact the 2008 National Crime Victim Survey found that violent crimes committed against people with disabilities is twice as high compared to those without disabilities. That’s why The Arc works with law enforcement and victim advocates to enhance their skills in reaching out to and supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are victims, to give them the tools they need to move from victim to survivor.”