It's common, offenders often close to home
“Yesterday I was battered,” begins an entry in the blog of a man with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease).
In a series of such entries over a period of months, the writer (now deceased) described how his hired caregiver abused him, including taking away the bell he used to summon help, ignoring him when he did ring and ridiculing his efforts to communicate as his paralysis spread.
A woman with limb-girdle muscular dystrophy had it worse. In October, 60-year-old Sherry Taub of Green Valley, Ariz., and her husband set out on an RV trip. David Taub originally told police his wife had been robbed and fatally beaten in their RV when they parked at a New Mexico truck stop. Later, he admitted he himself was the assailant.
A pervasive, frightening situation
Crime and violence against people with disabilities is “an invisible epidemic,” said Daniel D. Sorenson, chairman of the California Coalition on Crime Against People with Disabilities, in a 2001 speech entitled “Hate Crimes Against People with Disabilities.”
These crimes include rape, assault and murder, as well as economic crimes. Sorenson noted that “most experts agree that the rate of violent crime is from four to 10 times higher for people with disabilities than for the general population.”
In his paper “Violence and Abuse in the Lives of People with Disabilities” (1994), Gregor Wolbring, research professor at the University of Calgary (Canada), characterized the types of people most frequently guilty of abuse:
Society’s double standard
Wolbring, who was born without legs as a result of the drug thalidomide, said the situation for disabled people is worse than for other crime victims in at least three respects.
First, even though people with disabilities are the highest-risk group for abuse and violence, society is largely unaware of the problem.
Secondly, support for disabled victims is much less available than for nondisabled victims. When people with disabilities seek victim-related assistance from social service providers, these groups often have limited knowledge of the resources available to people with disabilities.
And finally, abuse and violence against people with disabilities is much more commonly accepted and less frequently punished than for other victim groups.
For example, Wolbring created a chart pointing to the “softened” terms society often applies to crimes against the disabled versus the general population:
In a 1999 survey of Massachusetts court documents, the Boston Globe found that of 342 crimes committed against people with disabilities, only 5 percent ended in a conviction. Of crimes involving people without disabilities, the conviction rate was 70 percent.
Abuse has long-lasting effects
One of many aspects of abuse is the effect it has on the subsequent behavior of victims. In another chart, Wolbring compared counselors’ descriptions of 43 children with disabilities who had been sexually abused with 43 children without disabilities, who had been similarly abused. On all measures, abused children with disabilities did worse:
“Crime can have life-changing consequences for the health, well-being and financial stability of victims who struggle for weeks, months and years with the aftermath of victimization,” said Judith Lewis Herman in her book Trauma and Recovery (Basic Books, 1997).
Victims don’t report
Very few reliable statistics exist about people in the United States with disabilities who fall victim to crime. The victims themselves often fail to report abuse to authorities.
Crime victims who are dependent on the person abusing them are less likely to report such crimes, notes a 2007 assessment prepared by a group of three disability rights organizations (the National Council on Disability, Association of University Centers on Disabilities and National Center for Victims of Crime).
In “Breaking the Silence on Crime Victims with Disabilities in the United States” the groups found that crime victims with disabilities often fear retaliation or destitution if the abuser is arrested, “… leading many to live lives of silent desperation and hopelessness in the face of long-term, repeat victimization.”
Further, “Victims also may have feelings of powerlessness stemming from the perception that the incident or series of incidents are somehow their fault,” said Olegario D. Cantos VII, special counsel to the assistant attorney general, U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.
High hopes didn’t pan out
In an effort to get a better handle on the real numbers of crime victims with disabilities, 10 years ago Congress passed the Crime Victims with Disabilities Awareness Act.
Under the CVDAA, the U.S. Justice Department was instructed to gather data on this victim population through the country’s main source of crime victim information, the National Crime Victim Survey. But at this juncture, the CVDAA hasn’t proved to be the awareness-enhancing tool it was hoped to be.
Recognizing the act’s shortcomings, the three agencies mentioned above joined forces in 2007 to enact five goals:
Now, a year later, where do things stand? Close to where they started.
According to Kevin O’Brien, director of Education and Victim Services for NCVC, funding has been allocated to help the three organizations pursue their goals, and a convocation of victims’ rights groups will discuss the issues further, possibly in March 2009.
Olegario “Ollie” Cantos, of the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, said when people abuse a member of their family who is disabled, it’s often a crime of opportunity.
“They usually recognize — especially when the victim’s communications skills are limited — that they have a better chance of getting away with abuse,” Cantos said. Such cases are seldom prosecuted because the chances of a conviction are slim, he said.
Displaced anger is another cause of abuse, according to Richard Sobsey, professor of Educational Psychology and director of the John Dossetor Health Ethics Centre at the University of Alberta (Canada).
“In some cases, caregivers who are angry at more powerful figures in their own lives redirect their anger toward the vulnerable individuals to whom they provide care,” Sobsey said.
One way for abusers to resist the impulse to abuse is to remove themselves from what Cantos calls “triggers.” As a parallel example, he described removing a pedophile from the presence of children. Caregivers can analyze the types of situations that “set them off,” and find other sources of help for those times.
Unfortunately, it’s very difficult for abusers to seek outside help or to ask other people to hold them accountable for their actions, he maintained, because such people usually can’t admit they have a problem.
Sobsey offered another approach for caregivers whose behavior is angry or confrontational, but not grossly pathological or criminal. “It may be better to focus on making the relationship as good as possible, rather than trying to avoid doing wrong. Try to feel good about yourself” and the person for whom you’re caring, he said.
He also warns against allowing yourself or your family to become too isolated, and stresses avoiding personal danger zones. “For some people, relaxing with a drink is harmless or even can be therapeutic. For others, drinking becomes a major contributor to abuse.”
The most important thing in abuse situations, Cantos said, is that, “victims must know it is never, ever, their fault. They didn’t make it happen.”
Victims must learn where they can go for assistance (see “Getting Help”). But equally important is that “first responders,” such as police, must know how to communicate effectively with people who have a disability.
Cantos gave the example of an investigating officer who asked a woman with a cognitive disability, “Did he touch you?” And the woman, seeking to be helpful, smiled and nodded yes, even though she had been brutalized. The untrained officer construed her answer as “consent.”
Although agencies that provide caregivers to people with disabilities are required by law to report any episodes of abuse to police, they don’t always do so.
Richard Sobsey from the University of Alberta said there’s no foolproof way to screen caregivers, but one useful way to assess qualifications is to ask potential employees how they would act in various situations. He advises against hiring people who seem too willing to exercise their authority, which can indicate a controlling personality.
Ollie Cantos of the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, said it’s important when interviewing potential caregivers to ask how long they’ve worked in that capacity, and for names and contact information for their employers during that period. Also ask if they’ll submit to a criminal background check, but don’t rely solely on it.
“Caregivers often provide the most intimate types of care. That means people with disabilities have every right to be as invasive as they want; it’s their bodies that are going to be touched,” Cantos said.
A contingency plan is very important for ending abuse. Have a list of backup, vetted caregivers who can step into the breach if an existing caregiver must be fired.
“Not having a backup can be tantamount to accepting abuse simply because no other caregiver is available,” Cantos observed.
“If the disabled person is in a residential setting, the prospect of being moved to an institution, just because a home caregiver isn’t available, is daunting to most people. They get stuck in a cycle of abuse.”
If you or someone you know is a crime victim with a disability, help is available.
The quickest route to assistance is to call 911. Beyond that, tell people about the situation, and keep telling until your concerns are taken seriously.