States Aim To Halt Sexual Abuse Of People With Intellectual Disabilities

Jun 25, 2018
Originally published on June 25, 2018 7:50 pm

Earlier this year, NPR reported that people with intellectual disabilities are victims of some of the highest rates of sexual assault. NPR found previously undisclosed government numbers showing that they're assaulted at seven times the rate of people without disabilities. Now states, communities and advocates, citing NPR's reporting, are making reforms aimed at improving those statistics.

In Pennsylvania, legislation passed the state House of Representatives earlier this month that would make it easier for people with intellectual disabilities to testify in court. The proposed law, introduced by Republican Rep. Garth Everett, would set out circumstances in which a judge could allow a person's testimony to be taken outside of a courtroom.

In Massachusetts, a proposed law would create a registry of abusive caregivers, even if the case isn't prosecuted. Currently, when an allegation of abuse emerges, a state agency investigates to see if the claim can be substantiated, but the names of alleged perpetrators are only made public if a prosecutor decides to take the case to trial. Advocates cited the NPR series in pushing for the law.

And in California, legislation was proposed — but ultimately stalled — that would have started a pilot program to give prosecutors extra money to devote more staff and more time to prosecute these cases.

These reforms are all aimed at making it easier for police and prosecutors to investigate cases and take them to trial. It can be difficult to do that, in part because people with intellectual disabilities may have difficulty speaking, remembering details or recalling a time sequence. One result: perpetrators often go unpunished, and are free to assault again.

In the U.S. Congress, legislation was introduced that would guarantee the continuation of existing federal funding to address the sexual assault of women with intellectual disabilities. The money is currently authorized in the Violence Against Women Act, which is set to expire at the end of this year. When Republican Rep. Ken Calvert of California introduced the CARE Act in April, he noted the NPR reporting and statistics: "It is absolutely shocking and disturbing that these individuals are targeted so often and I wholeheartedly believe we must do more to protect them."

Other proposals involve training people with intellectual disabilities themselves. Often, they didn't get sex education in schools, so they may have difficulty identifying abuse.

People with intellectual disabilities "live an isolated life and it makes you more likely to be victimized," says Jessica Oppenheim of the Arc of New Jersey, an advocacy group.

"Let's face it," she says, "Offenders are going to look for an easier target. And someone who doesn't feel they have the right to say anything, someone who may not understand what their rights are, someone who's not comfortable — or maybe is even afraid to say anything — makes for an easier target."

Now states, including Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Florida, are spending more money for trainings about healthy relationships and how to spot abuse. And groups that represent people with intellectual disabilities and people who teach classes about sexuality for people with disabilities are reporting new interest in trainings.

Earlier this month, the Arc of New Jersey called a state summit to consider reforms. About 50 people — state officials, prosecutors, parents, advocates and people who work in the disability field — gathered at the meeting in New Brunswick.

James Meadours, a man with an intellectual disability, came from Texas to deliver the keynote address. Meadours is a rape survivor who was featured in NPR's Abused and Betrayed series.

Meadours first started speaking to disability groups about a decade ago. Since NPR's series, Meadours has traveled around the country doing even more advocacy. He appears in a new public service announcement from 1in6, a national nonprofit that offers support to male survivors of sexual assault.

"If you be quiet," he said, "You cannot change things. But if you have a voice, you can change the world."

After Meadours spoke, the people in the room brainstormed ideas. Someone from each table stood up to report their recommendations.

Thomas Baffuto, the executive director of the Arc of New Jersey, said there was a "need for a hotline for folks with intellectual disabilities to not only report abuse and neglect but also get help and get connected to supports and services." And he suggested legislation that would require that students with disabilities get sex education in school. Often they are pulled from those classes to get other services, or because it's assumed they can't understand the discussion. "We think schools have to require more sex education, not less," Baffuto added.

Oppenheim, an attorney who runs the New Jersey Arc's criminal justice advocacy program, said the public needs to better understand that people with intellectual disabilities live and work in their neighborhoods and to respect their desire to be part of those communities.

One suggestion: "Essentially a public service campaign that we would call '#UsToo.'"

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Earlier this year, we told you about a group with some of the highest rates of sexual assault. In a series of NPR stories, we reported about people with intellectual disabilities and how our data shows they are sexually assaulted at seven times the rate of other adults.

THOMAS BAFFUTO: Those statistics are staggering. I mean, they're just staggering.

KELLY: That is Thomas Baffuto of the advocacy group the Arc of New Jersey. Now, citing NPR's reports, states, communities and advocates are making new efforts to change those statistics. NPR's Joseph Shapiro has the latest.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: In Pennsylvania, legislation has advanced to make it easier people with intellectual disabilities to testify at trial. A lawmaker in California proposed a bill to give prosecutors extra funding for these cases. In Massachusetts, a proposed law would create a registry of abusive caregivers even if the case didn't go to trial. These reforms aim at the reasons perpetrators often go unpunished. Because people with intellectual disabilities may have difficulty speaking or remembering details, it's hard for them to testify in court.

(CROSSTALK)

SHAPIRO: The Arc of New Jersey, an advocacy group for people with developmental disabilities, called a summit earlier this month. State officials, prosecutors, parents, advocates and people who work in the disability field - about 50 of them - gathered.

JAMES MEADOURS: I remember back - I think it's in the '80s, if someone could correct me if I'm wrong - like, '86 or '88.

SHAPIRO: James Meadours was in our series. He's a man with an intellectual disability. He's a rape survivor. Meadours, who's come from Texas, talks about a case he remembers hearing about.

MEADOURS: A case in New Jersey with a lady with a Down syndrome, got assaulted by the football team, the local high school football team.

SHAPIRO: In Glen Ridge, N.J., the sexual assault of that young woman with an intellectual disability was the first case to get widespread national attention. Meadours says that case was significant for him because he says he was sexually assaulted around that time, but he didn't even know what to call what happened to him. And then he saw those news stories.

MEADOURS: This is the first time I heard it because that really kind of woke me up.

SHAPIRO: What Meadours doesn't know is that the prosecutor who fought and won that case is in his audience today. James Meadours is about to meet Robert Laurino.

MEADOURS: I hear about you. I...

ROBERT LAURINO: I was the prosecutor in that case you were talking about from New Jersey back in the '80s. It's right, 1989.

MEADOURS: '89. I was close.

LAURINO: 1989. You were close. You were very close because...

MEADOURS: I think I have to come and talk to your attorneys.

LAURINO: I would love you to come to talk to my attorneys. Yes.

SHAPIRO: This summit was called to develop a plan to lower the rates of sexual assault. After James Meadours speaks, the people in the room brainstorm ideas. Then someone from each table stands up to report their recommendations.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: One of our ideas was essentially a public service campaign that we would call hashtag Us Too. And if you click on...

BAFFUTO: We also talked about the need for a hotline for folks with intellectual and developmental disabilities to not only report abuse and neglect but also get help and get connected to supports and services. But a very...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah. It was really about changing societal perceptions as well as professionalizing the field. So investing in...

BAFFUTO: We think schools have to require more sex education, not less. And we talked about ways...

SHAPIRO: Many of the solutions involve training people with intellectual disabilities themselves. Often they didn't get sex education in schools. So states like Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Florida are spending more money for trainings about healthy relationships and how to spot abuse. They're first steps to cut those high rates of sexual assault. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.