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 ( 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.

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

3 thoughts on “Sexual Abuse of People with I/DD a Global Scandal

  1. This terrifies me. As a mother of a non-verbal 15 year old daughter, this is my greatest fear. I feel very strongly that we keep our children safest by keeping them out of segregated programs (among others children that cannot tell). It was explained to me like this, “If you were going to pray on children, where would you work? Who would you target?”

    I wrote a book, Opening Doors, Opening Lives: Creating awareness of advocacy, inclusion and education for our children with special needs. Everyone can have their child included in a typical school among children that talk (and can tell what is going on). Of course every child needs the proper support and supervision within every educational setting–and among hundreds of people that talk, I have a much greater chance of knowing what is going and hopefully preventing abuse.

    I saw this in action when my daughter was in the 3rd grade. She was assigned a paraprofessional that was polite to me, but was very stern with my daughter when she thought no one was looking. Guess who the kids were talking about during dinner at night? The typical (verbal) children were telling their parents about the paraprofessional that was treating my daughter unkindly! I received reports from teachers in the building and there were parents calling me alerting me to what was going on. If my daughter had been a a segregated setting, I would not have known what was going on and would not have been able to advocate for her and to keep her safe.

    Wherever your child is–I encourage you to go and observe. This is your right. I believe a healthy dose of being involved is essential for our children to keep them safe.

  2. It would be very helpful to have sex ed materials for people who may have difficulty with reading and comprehension in order to teach our kids. The materials I have found are geared for the education market and priced accordingly, making them unaffordable. The middle school teachers I approached about sex. ed at school were very squeamish. One of them did agree to ask the health teacher if we could borrow the 4th grade boys “Developing Body” tape.

    It would be very helpful to have a a DVD on sexual abuse and avoiding it if possible and getting help if it does happen, a DVD on developing girl’s anatomy, a DVD on developing boy’s anatomy, a DVD on reproduction, a DVD on contraception and avoiding STDs (with a demonstration on how to use condoms), and a DVD on dating social skills,

  3. it’s one of the most important subjects that we have to discuss nowadays specially through what we face today in our lives from violence and brutal crimes caused by sexual abuse

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