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Adult Victims of Sexual Assault

Protecting Adults with Intellectual Disability

By May 24, 2018No Comments

Protecting those with disability is on my mind this month as Special Olympics has just wrapped up. For many families with a participant, this is the highlight of the year. Koller Trial Law congratulates all the participants and volunteers for 2018’s successful summer program.


These families have so much extra work to do that I hesitate to add more. But recent investigations demonstrate that there is more to do. In January 2018 NPR did an expose about sexual assaults of adults with intellectual disabilites. According to this article, sexual assault on those with an intellectual disability is seven times higher than the rate for persons with no disabilities.  According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, approximately 59,000 adults with disabilities are raped or sexually assaulted each year.  


Of course, people with limited verbal skills or intellectual functioning are more vulnerable because they are less able to tell caregivers what has happened. This is the same difficulty that leaves small children and elderly dementia patients vulnerable as well.  Because of the disability, even when victims do speak up they are not always believed. If the case goes to court, the victim may have difficulties testifying. Because of these problems, often these crimes go unprosecuted and unpunished. This leaves the perpetrators free to abuse again.


Perpetrators are other persons with disability (42%), staff members (14%), relatives and friends according to the NPR research.  This type of abuse can occur at home, in a facility, in a group home or in a place where other services are being provided. The Oklahoma legislature this past session adopted the “Breanne Bell Act“ which requires group homes to notify staff members that they may be criminally prosecuted for having sexual contact with person in their care. Breanne’s story epitomizes the risks. She was assaulted by a supervisor in her sheltered workshop and that man is now in prison. This Act is a helpful start. It should be followed by encouragement to District Attorneys offices to prosecute these crimes, just as in Breanne’s case, and the resources to do so.


One issue that comes up often in dealing with sexual abuse of those with intellectual or developmental disability is whether the person is capable of giving consent. Advocates for the disabled are working on equitable issues for the disabled in the areas of sex and marriage. They argue that the disabled can give consent to healthy adult sexual relationships. But determining whether a person is capable of giving consent is a legal challenge. Whether a specific person gave consent to sexual activity in a specific context is a debate lawyers have in many criminal cases and is also an issue in civil cases. It involves looking at many different factors and often has to be resolved by the factfinder – the judge or the jury.


There are steps that can be taken to help protect your vulnerable family member with an intellectual disability.


One. Check out the policies and procedures at the programs and personalities you are using. Prevention of child sexual abuse has been aided by the “two deep“ rule- two adults when kids are present. A similar rule would help with this population as well.


Two. Educate to the extent that you can. Learning that there should be no secrets is a valuable skill. There are organizations that offer sex education to those with intellectual disability. Seek them out. This is a lifelong process that can start early, but it is never too late to teach.  Here is a resource page to help you get started:


Without education, people with disability may not understand or lack information about healthy sexuality and the types of touching that are appropriate.


Three. Observe for changes in behavior. Even victims with normal verbal skills may not speak out immediately. But unusual changes in behavior are potential warning signs especially in a population that has communication difficulties. A change in mood and attitude (going from outgoing to despondent) and new difficulties in behavior (not wanting to go back to class or a job that they liked going to before) are prompts to investigate further. Obviously, any verbal complaint must be taken seriously.

Koller Trial Law has helped adults with intellectual disability before. If your vulnerable family member has been a victim of an assault or sexual abuse, we are here to help you understand your family’s legal rights.