The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (“RAINN”) reports that sexual assault and abuse of people with disabilities often goes unnoticed, and, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey, people with disabilities are victimized by crime at higher rates than the rest of the population. Too often, it is the caregivers who are the perpetrators. While one with a disability may give consent to sexual activity, there can never be consent between one who is disabled and receiving care and a member of the caregiving staff.
According to a March 2013 study by the Vera Institute of Justice, children with intellectual and mental health disabilities have nearly five times the risk of being sexually abused as non-disabled children. The Guardian reported in 2015 that almost 5,000 disabled adults had been sexually abused in England in the previous two years. Other observers suggest that such abuse is often underreported.
In a November 1 Massachusetts Republican article, Shira Schoenberg reported on the fact finding of Massachusetts Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities. Those testifying described horrific cases of sexual and physical abuse by caregivers, with an allegation that the perpetrators continue to work in the system. In those hearings, experts testified that “people with disabilities are among the most vulnerable and are subject to abuse at higher rates, often by those charged with caring for them.” In testimony offered by Nancy Alterio, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Disabled Persons Protection Commission (“DPPC”), she called the abuse of people with disabilities worldwide an “epidemic.”
The Lessons from Such Reports
In this era of heightened sensitivity to sexual misconduct in the workplace, the reporting and concern related to abuse and sexual abuse of the developmentally disabled receives too little note. Executives of organizations that provide care have a tremendous responsibility to protect the vulnerable among us. Sustained diligence regarding background checks of employees, adequate orientation and training, and continued monitoring of behaviors, both by the employees and the disabled for whom they provide care, is an absolute necessity. These executives and organizations must not only create policies to investigate and ultimately prohibit abuse, but regularly and carefully monitor employee behavior, and encourage bystander reporting of possible abuse to root out any inappropriate behavior. This starts with policing the everyday boundaries of communication for line staff and regularly reinforcing the commitment to respectful and appropriate interactions with those receiving care.
The cost to the organization and the hurt to the person is so great that the guard against such abuse must be constant and real.