Sexual Abuse of People with Intellectual Disabilities

In recent months, the pervasive nightmare that is sexual assault has been gaining some much-needed public attention. The #MeToo movement, which was originally started by activist Tarana Burke about a decade ago, went viral in October. People began sharing their personal stories of assault and harassment on social media, or simply posting “Me, too,” so that others could understand the extent and magnitude of the issue. At the Golden Globe Awards, nearly all the attendees wore black in protest of sexual misconduct, and many made powerful statements about ending harassment and assault. In a particularly well-received speech, Oprah said the problem was one that “transcends any culture, geography, race, religion, politics, or workplace.” While she is absolutely correct, it is important to add disability to this list.

NPR draws attention to “hidden epidemic” Sexual Abuse of People with Intellectual Disabilities

Just a day after the Golden Globes, NPR aired the first segments of a new series, “Abused and Betrayed.” It’s a report on a year-long investigation into sexual abuse of people with intellectual disabilities, which they refer to as a “hidden epidemic.” NPR obtained unpublished data on sex crimes from the Justice Department, and unveiled some distressing statistics:

  • Those with intellectual disabilities experience sexual assault more than seven times as frequently as people without disabilities. Among women with intellectual disabilities, it is about 12 times the rate.
  • When a woman with an intellectual disability is raped, there is an 86% chance that the rapist is someone she knows rather than a stranger. For women without disabilities, this is the case 76% of the time.
  • People with intellectual disabilities are more likely to be assaulted repeatedly by the same perpetrator.

Why are people with intellectual disabilities so frequently assaulted?

There are many reasons why having an intellectual disability can make someone more vulnerable to sexual assault and abuse. Depending on the severity of their condition, people with intellectual disabilities may need frequent assistance with daily tasks, including intimate ones such as bathing and dressing. They may come into contact with a variety of workers and caretakers every day (this is especially true of people living in group homes and institutions), some of whom may have predatory tendencies and see them as “easy targets” for assault.

People with intellectual disabilities may have difficulty determining who is trustworthy, recognizing unacceptable behaviors, reporting an assault once it has happened, determining who to report the assault to, and communicating the incident clearly enough that they will be understood. Furthermore, assault claims made by individuals with intellectual disabilities are often dismissed; NPR found that they are perceived as not being credible or having overactive imaginations.

People with intellectual disabilities are also often taught to be obedient and not question authority figures, and some may be tricked into believing an assault was their fault.

Pauline’s story

This sort of manipulation may not only come from the person who commits sexual assault or abuse, but from others who have a stake in the matter. One such example is the story of Pauline (last name not given), who was interviewed in the NPR series. Pauline had lived with her caretaker, Cheryl McClain, for over 20 years, which was roughly half her life. She even called McClain “Mommy.” Pauline recalls that McClain would sometimes yell at her, and tell her she was “stupid” or “retarded.” Still, she made some happy memories while living under her roofa major one being that she met and married a man named David, who also has an intellectual disability. But her situation changed dramatically when she was raped, repeatedly, by two boys who lived in the house: McClain’s foster son and adopted son. She told McClain about it, and McClain called the police. But then McClain appeared to have second thoughts and began to pressure Pauline to change her story. Bizarrely, McClain even recorded herself doing this. On the recording, she could be heard telling Pauline that, “Even though I know they started with you first, a lady has to say ‘No.’ She has to mean ‘No.’” Had she succeeded in convincing Pauline that the sex was consensual, Pauline herself may have been charged with statutory rape, because the perpetrators were just 12 and 13 years old. Fortunately, although Pauline became distraught and stated that she didn’t want anyone to go to jail, she stuck to her story about the abuse. On air with NPR, she can be heard advising other women, and perhaps reminding herself, “It’s not your fault.”

Although the juvenile perpetrators evaded serious punishment, as did McClain, adult protective services still removed Pauline from the home. Of her new living situation, she says, “I feel safe. I feel happy.” Sadly, however, Pauline’s husband David still lives with McClain; they must communicate through phone calls and letters.

Sentence overturned because survivor didn’t “behave like a victim”

Even when evidence of a sexual assault is overwhelming, the justice system often fails survivors with intellectual disabilities. In Georgia, a man was found guilty of raping a woman with Down syndrome, but later his sentence was overturned because Appeals Court Judge Christopher McFadden decided she did not “behave like a victim” or exhibit “visible distress.” This was despite DNA evidence (semen) and physical signs of rape. Eventually, he was retried and convicted, but this story still illustrates a broader issue of alarming disregard for the welfare of people with intellectual disabilities.

The rates of sexual assault on people with intellectual disabilities are probably even higher than we think

In general, sexual assault rates are difficult to accurately determine. Many survivors are unable or choose not to report, so statisticians often underestimate how common it is for a specific demographic to experience sexual assault. This may be especially true when considering people with intellectual disabilities. As in the case of Pauline, even those victims who understand they’ve been assaulted and report the crime often find their stories deflected, distorted, denied, or silenced by their guardians and confidants.  Of course, neurotypical survivors are also frequently accused of lying or “asking for it,” which may dissuade them from going to the authorities, but having an intellectual disability makes these dismissals all the more challenging to surmount.

Missing data: group homes and state institutions

Moreover, the Justice Department data used by NPR were collected from household surveys alone; their data exclude the stories of those with intellectual disabilities who live in group homes or state institutions. People in group homes or state institutions are at risk of abuse and sexual violence from visitors, other residents, caretakers, and other employees. Individuals living in these facilities may have more severe impairments than those who live on their own or with family/friends, making them less likely to successfully report abuse. Additionally, they may not have any means of contacting law enforcement.

Sometimes, even when sexual abuse in group homes and institutions is brought to light, it is not taken seriously at all. For example, one Illinois group home was responsible for closely supervising a resident with a history of sexual misconduct. Employees were meant to accompany him anywhere he went. Unfortunately, they allowed him to wander off, and he assaulted another resident. An investigator from the inspector general’s office concluded that the encounter was consensual, even though the victim was a man with “profound disabilities” and should have been considered incapable of providing consent by state law. For more information on this story and other shocking accounts of abuse in group homes, see this article from the Chicago Tribune.

How can sexual abuse of people with intellectual disabilities be stopped?

A critical aspect of combating this “hidden epidemic” is changing societal attitudes toward people with intellectual disabilities. Some survivors may be unable to provide detailed accounts of the incident, and their stories may seem somewhat inconsistent. Nevertheless, their reports of assault must be taken very seriously, with further diligence and patience from investigators.

It is also important to recognize that abusers are often people employed for reasons specifically related to the survivor’s disabilitygroup home staff, personal care attendants, etc. Individuals and organizations must be very careful about who they hire, and conduct regular background checks. Group homes and institutions must also develop more effective training programs so that well-meaning staff members can better recognize signs of abuse and prevent it from occurring.

Moreover, measures should be taken to directly empower people with intellectual disabilities. Those who have survived sexual assault should have access to therapy programs designed to meet their needs. We may need more therapists who specialize in treating both assault survivors and people with intellectual disabilities, especially those who are nonverbal.

Another important component of ending abuse may be providing sexual education classes for people with intellectual disabilities. Sex ed programs for special education students have been severely lacking, especially those that go beyond simplistic warnings about “stranger danger,” etc. Katherine McLaughlin, a New Hampshire sex educator, is working to change this. She developed a curriculum specifically designed for people with intellectual disabilities. It emphasizes concrete examples, pictures, and photographs.

Many people with intellectual disabilities have romantic and sexual relationships that are both healthy and consensual.  Unfortunately, many others have only experienced non-consensual or abusive relationships.  One component of preventing continued abuse is ensuring that survivors recognize it for what it is; that is one of the major goals of McLaughlin’s curriculum.

Reporting Sexual Assault:

If you or someone else may be in immediate danger, it is best to dial 911.

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) also has a hotline that can connect you to sexual assault service providers in your area: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). You can also chat RAINN representatives online: In addition to connecting you to law enforcement, they can also recommend counseling services.

If you suspect abuse, you can also contact Adult Protective Services. This link can assist you in finding help in your area. For a list of welfare agencies you can contact in cases of suspected child abuse, click here.

Survivors can also go to a local hospital for treatment and for an examination that may provide evidence against the perpetrator.

Other Resources:

The Arc, an organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, has a couple of useful resources you may want to check out. Click here for an advocate guide titled “Safety Planning for Persons with Disabilities,” and here for a blog post that provides links to educational materials that can help caretakers and medical professionals discuss sexual misconduct with people who have intellectual disabilities.

Other Recent Blog Posts:

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Recent Investigations Reveal Widespread Abuse And Neglect Of Group Home Residents

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