People with Disabilities Too Often are Targets of Crime

Disability advocates say many more preventative measures are needed

Article Highlights:
  • People with disabilities are more likely to be the targets of violent crime, theft and abuse than people without. Hate crimes against people with disabilities are increasing in some areas.
  • In addition to these more serious crimes, illegal parking in accessible parking spaces is rampant.
  • New hate crime legislation was recently passed by Congress; a variety of related bills are pending.
  • Some government money may be available to crime victims for assistance or compensation.
by Bill Norman on July 1, 2010 - 3:21pm

QUEST Vol. 17, No. 3

In 2008, Kathleen Means, 50, was found dead from multiple stab wounds in her Rockford, Ill., apartment. Means, who had facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD) and walked with difficulty, had lived alone since she retired in 2006. She was well-liked by her neighbors and former co-workers. Police could not discern a motive. One year later, they said they still had “few leads.”

The year 2008 produced grim headlines describing abuse of people with disabilities by the people around them, whether they were family, caregivers or complete strangers.

A 2009 report by U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics confirmed a trend that has been identifiable in the United States for years: Men and women with disabilities were victims of violent crime at least one-and-a-half times more frequently than those without disabilities. For women with disabilities, the rate of victimization was twice that of women without.

Sordid stories abound

Below are a few examples of the many incidents that have occurred within recent years.

In Seattle, Peter Gullberg, 43, admitted he killed his live-in girlfriend of six years, for whom he had also been the paid caregiver. Stephanie Campeau, 34, had FSHD. She and Gullberg, according to neighbors, had a stormy relationship. Gullberg told police he “just snapped” when he began striking Campeau repeatedly in the head. He was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Two young men broke into the home of Charles Mathieu in Pt. Charlotte, Fla., because they heard he kept money in his sofa, and should be an easy mark because he had limb-girdle muscular dystrophy. The men, one 20, the other 15, assaulted Mathieu, but weren’t aware he had a friend, 31-year-old Randy John, visiting. John proceeded to beat the two intruders, and they had to be treated for multiple cuts and bruises before being turned over to police and charged with home invasion robbery.

In Chelsea, Mass., Scott Marra, 39, was arrested for stealing the wallet of 39-year-old Steve Saling as he waited in his wheelchair for an elevator at a subway station. Saling has ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and is largely paralyzed. He is a well-known architect who is involved in designing housing specifically for people with the disease. Police identified Marra from surveillance cameras after he used Saling’s debit card to make two $100 purchases, and his subway pass to travel throughout the city.

In Hartford, Conn., private nurse Orphia Wilson was sentenced to six months in prison, pleading guilty to reduced charges in the 2005 death of a 3-year-old boy with muscular dystrophy under her care. When the child had a respiratory attack, Wilson failed to give him CPR. It was alleged that she had turned off alarms that would have signaled his respiratory distress, so she could sleep. Seven months before, she had lost her registered nursing license in Florida when another child in her care died in similar circumstances. She moved to Connecticut where her background was not revealed.

Economy part of the problem?

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reported that in 2008, hate crimes against the disabled increased by 88 percent, to 42. Most of the crimes involved burglaries, thefts and assaults.

Carol Westlake, executive director of the Tennessee Disability Coalition, said she thinks factors contributing to the dramatic increase include the public’s decreased tolerance for interpersonal differences, due to economic hardships affecting the whole country. “Especially when times are tight, it becomes easier to turn inward, to attune more to people like ourselves, and at the same time to vilify others who aren’t like us,” she said.

Westlake said there seems a growing tendency among public officials to act out their baser instincts, and seeing that behavior gives some people a reason to act on harmful impulses they’d not have acted on before. “People with disabilities have also told me they think they’ve been victimized because they’re easy targets, and usually can’t fight back,” she added.

Institutions also can be abusers

In February 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights Division began an investigation into allegations of abuse at the Judge Rutenberg Center in Canton, Mass. The Center’s website describes the center as a special-needs school providing education and treatment for people with disabilities, ages 3 to adult. DOJ became involved after it received complaints about the Center from 31 disability advocacy and human rights organizations. They charged that the school relied on painful electric shock, abusive restraints and food deprivation to force behavior changes in the people for whom it was caring. The investigation is under way.

Westlake, with the Tennessee Disability Coalition, observed, “What some institutions are doing to disabled children in the guise of professional care would get their parents thrown in jail.”

A study conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that was released in May 2009 found hundreds of cases of alleged abuse, even death, of children with disabilities in public and private schools over the previous 20 years.

Parking lot fraud

In addition to these serious crimes, parking space misuse also is rampant, if the number of new daily entries on the website is any indication. Fake or improperly obtained vehicle placards and license plates are allowing “legal” parking by able-bodied people in spaces reserved for people with disabilities.

The same goes for vehicles with no handicapped placard or plate at all, which blatantly cruise into these accessible spots. An observer in Costa Mesa, Calif., gave a typical report on the site: “Tall, slender 30-ish male backed car into [handicapped] parking slot, jumped out of car and ran into supermarket. No visible sign of physical handicap.”

Another witness in Pasadena, Calif., wrote: “Both the passenger and driver got out of the car and walked unassisted into the restaurant. They sat at a small, round elevated table on bar stools drinking margaritas.”

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles reported in 2009 that about 10 percent of the state’s licensed drivers, some 2.5 million people, had disabled placards. John Van Horn, editor of Parking Today magazine, said of the abuse, “The practice is widespread. My guess, very conservative, is that more than half of all the disabled permits in California are illegal in one way or another — doctor’s note forged, stolen, or frankly just counterfeited.”

Van Horn said the only reason “underground trading” in disabled permits occurs is that they’re free. “Most disabled people tell me they want access, not charity,” he said, “Having it free is nice, but that’s what causes the problem.”

Donald Shoup, professor of urban planning at UCLA, has specialized in studying the relationship between parking and land use. Of disabled license plate/placard abuse in California he said, ”It’s a scandal. It’s rampant.” Because California permits free parking at meters for people with the placards, he said, “That’s a direct financial incentive for abuse.”

What’s being done to fight crime and abuse?

The battle against abuse of people with disabilities is being fought on many fronts. Some may affect only a small segment of the population; others have national impact. Disability advocates say many more preventative measures are needed.

Expanding “hate crime” protection: H.R. 1913 (Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009) became law in December 2009 after it was included in the Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2010 (H.R. 3326). The bill expands the definition of federal hate crimes to cover attacks based on gender, sexual orientation and disability. Disability advocates had worked for 10 years to obtain the same protections for people with disabilities that are afforded to those targeted due to their race, religion or national origin.

Protecting disabled children in institutions: H.R. 4247, the Keeping All Students Safe Act (formerly the Preventing Harmful Restraint and Seclusion in Schools Act) was approved by the House in March. It was sent to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on March 4, but had not emerged from the committee as of July 1 when this article was posted. The bill establishes the first federal safety standards dealing with restraint and seclusion in schools. Its provisions include prohibiting “elementary and secondary school personnel from managing any student by using any mechanical or chemical restraint, physical restraint or escort that restricts breathing, or aversive behavioral intervention that compromises student health and safety.”

Parking: In 2009, California passed a law increasing the penalty for disabled parking permit abuse to $1,000 for repeat offenders.

Sexual harassment: In January, the U.S. Department of Justice entered into a settlement agreement with the city of Nashville and Davidson County, Tenn., to improve the security of students with disabilities on public school buses.

The agreement was prompted by a lawsuit that stemmed from incidents of sexual assault and harassment of disabled students on buses. Part of the settlement included payment of $1.475 million to a 9-year-old child who had been so assaulted.

The agreement also required the hiring of bus monitors to assist drivers on special education buses; speeding up the investigation of suspected acts of sexual harassment of students with disabilities; implementing screening procedures to ensure that disabled students are not placed on buses where they would be at risk of harassment; and ensuring open lines of communication between school officials and transportation personnel.

U.S. Attorney Edward Yarbrough, who was involved with reaching the agreement said, “This case is a sad reminder that children with disabilities need the protection of governments from harassment, assault and maltreatment by others.”

Government assistance is often available

The 1984 Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) requires states to offer reimbursement to crime victims for some damages. However, state victim compensation programs are “payers of last resort.” They reimburse victims for approved crime-related expenses only when other resources such as private insurance, Medicaid and Social Security will not cover losses.

DOJ’s Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) administers two types of VOCA grants that are available through state programs: compensation and assistance.

Victim compensation may cover victim losses related to dental and medical care, counseling, lost wages and funeral/burial expenses. Reimbursement may also be available to cover crime-related expenses such as the need for temporary lodging, travel, dependent care and crime scene cleanup. In all cases, a victim must first file a report with law enforcement. Then the victim or a vendor rendering services can file a claim with the state compensation program, which determines if compensation will be granted.

The average pay-out per compensation claim in fiscal years 2007 and 2008 was about $3,000, and compensation nationwide represented 37 percent of VOCA program payments to victims in those two years. Maximum awards depend on each state’s guidelines.

Victim assistance for crime victims can cover such services as crisis counseling, telephone and on-site information and referrals; emergency shelter, therapy and support in navigating the criminal justice system. Assistance also can take the form of paying to replace broken locks and windows on victims’ homes so they will feel more secure.

Domestic violence victims accounted for about 46 percent of VOCA program expenditures in 2007/2008.

National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA)
(800) 879-6682
The NOVA Web site lists scores of agencies and information resources that may be of assistance to victims of crime. Referral Information is provided alphabetically by organization, state and within the federal government.

U.S. Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime (OVC)
(202) 307-5983
(800) 851-3420 (Information Resource Center)
OVC provides links to departments such as:
Help for Victims,
Victims with Disabilities,
OVC Resource Center, and
Directory of Victim Services.

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