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Abuse of Disabled: a Mostly Ignored Epidemic

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The Orlando Sentinel


ORLANDO, Fla. - In Milwaukee, a bus driver slapped a 9-year-old boy with Down syndrome and a school official threatened to tie the boy to a tree - incidents caught on tape earlier this year.

In Arkansas, a state center was cited for not protecting its developmentally disabled residents from sexual abuse by a resident and not reporting the mistreatment and neglect.

And in Orlando, police are investigating the rape of a 22-year-old mentally retarded woman in a group home. The woman, who is about six months pregnant, is so severely retarded that she could not have consented to sex, police say.

Advocates nationwide say the Orlando incident is simply the latest tragedy amid a growing problem among some of society's most vulnerable people.

They say that, unlike child abuse, elder abuse and domestic violence, abuse against the disabled has been largely ignored despite an epidemic of violence.

Among their greatest concerns:

-Estimates show that people with disabilities are four to 10 times more likely to be victimized than people without disabilities, yet no one agency collects statistics on violence against the disabled.

-Victims with disabilities suffer repeatedly because so few of the crimes against them are reported. Caregivers often do not believe them when they do report abuse, turning people with disabilities into easy targets for predators.

-Support programs for crime victims are largely inaccessible to people with disabilities. Most people with disabilities live in places such as group homes or nursing homes, segregated from the rest of the community and its support network.

The problem is expected to increase as the population of people with disabilities also rises. According to the state Department of Children & Families, there are at least 4,888 developmentally disabled adults living in group homes in Florida.

Advocates nationwide say they are working to increase awareness of the issue, create new federal initiatives, expand programs for victims and improve strategies for prevention and treatment.

"We're just beginning to see a raising awareness about the abuse of the disabled," said Dr. Diane Bryan, executive director of the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University. "It's a very, very complex issue."


Detailed statistics about the problem don't exist, creating a barrier to understanding the scope of abuse against people with disabilities.

The two major governmental sources of crime statistics are the FBI Uniform Crime Report and the National Crime Victimization Survey administered by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Neither includes people with disabilities.

"We still don't ask the question, `Are you someone with a disability?' Bryan said. "It's outrageous. In a sense we are saying that society doesn't value these folks enough to even begin to count them."

Without concrete data, there is no accurate picture, which advocates need to be able to push for policy changes and increase funding for programs.

"Without adequate services we can't reach out to victims," said Terri Poore, director of public policy at the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence.

The 1998 passage of the Crime Victims with Disabilities Awareness Act mandated that people with disabilities be included in the collection of crime statistics.

That still has not happened.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Justice said its Bureau of Statistics has been testing questions to use with the National Crime Victimization Survey.

"It takes some time and some testing, especially when dealing with an aspect that has not been focused on before," said spokesman Adam Spector. "We hope to have some data out by the end of the year."

Smaller studies done in Canada, Australia, Great Britain and the United States have consistently shown that people with disabilities face a much higher risk of becoming crime victims and of being re-victimized.

Children with any kind of disability are more than twice as likely as children without disabilities to be physically abused and almost twice as likely to be sexually abused, studies show.


Victimization takes all forms, from sexual abuse and domestic violence to caregiver abuse and financial exploitation, and often is committed by people they know, trust and depend on, such as a relative, caregiver or a staff person.

Most physical or sexual abuse against the disabled happens to those who are mentally retarded - a condition that can be caused by genetic defects, diseases, poor nutrition in early childhood or brain injury. An estimated 6.2 million to 7.5 million people in the United States are mentally retarded, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

People who have developmental disabilities can have minds like children - making them perfect targets.

"Perpetrators tend to pick a victim who they think is vulnerable, someone they can threaten," said Wendie Abramson, director of disability services at SafePlace, an Austin, Texas, program tapped by the Department of Justice to lead a national initiative on violence against people with disabilities.

Women with developmental disabilities are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse, Poore said.

"It's an extremely pervasive problem," she said. "Perpetrators believe they won't tell, and that no one will believe them if they do."

Officials at The Arc, a national organization devoted to improving services for the mentally retarded, say an estimated 90 percent of people with developmental disabilities will be sexually abused in their lifetime.

Very few of the incidents will ever be reported.


Experts agree that agencies need to work together to improve prevention of crimes against people with disabilities as well as treatment.

A project with the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence next year aims to cross-train those who work with victims of sexual assault and those who work with the disabled, Poore said.

Since many people with disabilities live in group homes or other settings that lack access to social services, they are least likely to receive information about abuse, Abramson said.

In Austin, Texas, SafePlace provides training and educational programs to more than 15,000 disability service providers, people with disabilities, family members and law enforcement.

An $850,000 grant from the Department of Justice aims to spread the program across the country. Ten centers are receiving $60,000 in the first year of the multiyear grant to determine where gaps are and how they can address those needs, Abramson said.

One of those centers is The Center for Independent Living of North Florida in Tallahassee, which provides services to people with disabilities in 14 counties.

"We cover a large rural area," said Dan Moore, director of programs and services.

Instead of trying to hire more people who have experience working with crime victims, which costs more money, the grant will provide training to current workers "to be better at their jobs and do it with more sensitivity," he said.

Marc Dubin, president of the American Association on Mental Retardation's legal process and advocacy division, said rape crisis centers are not collaborating with those who work with the disabled.


"They have a lot of expertise to share with one another," he said. "They are two different worlds that need to merge."

Dubin is working to facilitate that merger with a Web site,, to bring together experts across the country. The site, Communities Against Violence Networks, has 1,200 members who can submit information and share research.

The rape of the Orlando woman, identified in court records only as J.D.S., could be used as a case study nationwide.

"So we can see what we could do better next time," Abramson said.


(c) 2003, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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