Silence both sheltered and shamed Erin Esposito when she endured sexual abuse that lasted for much of her childhood.
From the age of three until she was a teenager, said Esposito, who was born deaf, her father and two brothers abused her. Confused and scared, she said nothing until her adult life unraveled in a haze of drugs and alcohol.
Part of her recovery has been to recount her experiences.
“I can't change my past, but I decided and committed myself to make this world a better place so other deaf children don't go through what I did,” said Esposito, who is now 38 and serves as the Executive Director of Advocacy Services for Abused Deaf Victims, a national non-profit based in Rochester, NY.
One obstacle, according to Esposito who communicated with The Crime Report through a video relay service that uses a translator to communicate in real time, was that “people tend to think deaf and disabled people are stupid and can't communicate.”
“That,” she added, “makes us a very vulnerable population.”
Reports to child welfare
About 11 percent of the more than 300,000 sexual abuse reports made to child welfare officials in 2009 were from a child with a disability according to the Administration on Children Youth and Families (ACYF), part of the US Department of Health and Human Services.
A 2012 study from the World Health Organization (WHO) found that worldwide children with disabilities are almost three times more likely to be sexually abused than non-disabled peers. The study also found that children with cognitive or mental health disabilities are nearly five times more likely to suffer such abuse.
“The results of these reviews prove that people with disabilities are disproportionately vulnerable to violence,” Dr Etienne Krug, Director of WHO's Department of Violence and Injury Prevention and Disability, said in a 2012 press release relating to the study.
“Their needs have been neglected for far too long.”
Editors Note: While many in the deaf community reject the 'disabled' label, preferring to be classified as a cultural community, most reports follow medical and legal practice in classifying them as disabled.
Reliable national figures are not available, but in Vermont's Bennington County for example, the proportion of disabled child sex abuse cases to other child sex abuse cases has risen from almost zero to more than 50 percent in the last seven years, according to Christina Rainville, Chief Deputy State’s Attorney.
There were 151 child sexual abuse investigations in 2011 in Bennington County, and, of those, 35 were substantiated, according to the Vermont report from the Department of Children and Families.
Normally, the State Attorney office prosecutes all substantiated cases, although there are rare exceptions when they do not, and the office sometimes will litigate cases outside of the state agency recommendations, said Rainville.
“I think predators target children with disabilities because these children have a hard time communicating what happens to them,” said Rainville, who has written extensively on the challenges of interviewing disabled young sex abuse victims and prosecuting their cases for the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Center on Children and the Law.
To address what they consider a lack of attention to this issue, deaf community advocates such as Esposito have launched a national task force. The group, comprising representatives from the law enforcement, legal and research communities, held its first meeting in Washington DC last month.
It expects to issue a report with full recommendations in two years.
“People with disabilities are largely invisible in our society,” says Nancy Smith, Director
of the Center on Victimization and Safety at the Vera Institute of Justice, a national non-profit based in New York, which convened the task force.
Monique Hoeflinger, Senior Program Officer at Ms. Foundation for Women, which is funding the two-year study, adds that child sex abuse victims generally encounter difficulties in dealing with courts and law enforcement.
“The criminal justice system…. is set up to re- victimize kids,” she claims. “And when it comes to the disabled community, it almost completely fails.
“There are very few services and support for kids with disabilities.”
Difficult to detect and intervene
The daily realities of caring for children with disabilities mean that it can be difficult to detect, report or intervene in cases of abuse.
Numerous helpers and caregivers cycle in out of their lives— From the aides who change, feed and dress children, to physical therapists and bus drivers who transport the children.
Several of the most notorious cases have been widely covered in the press.
In 2013, a suburban Illinois man was sentenced to eight years in prison for sexually assaulting a developmentally disabled woman. In 2011, an upstate New York man was sentenced to 40 years for molesting a severely autistic boy that he was supposed to be caring for while working for the Central New York Developmental Disabilities Services.
The New York Times detailed systematic abuse taking place in homes for disabled persons in a 2011 series.
At the same time, those who care for children with disabilities feel they don't have the tools or relationships to educate their clients about sexual abuse.
“We would love to get someone in from the outside (law enforcement) to speak to us,” said Tracey Hoffman, a social worker coordinator at United Cerebral Palsy Association of Nassau County Inc., in Roosevelt, NY. Association Staff has been working to address sexual abuse issues for over a decade, but with limited success in reaching the students and families, Hoffman said.
Their school-based program, Children Learning Center, which serves young people from 2 to 21 years old, runs two workshops to educate them on unwanted sexual behavior.
One program for younger children, “No, Go, Tell” goes over stranger danger, inappropriate touching and asks them to identify immediately whatever seems uncomfortable for them. A technique called “Circles” helps them identify the people they trust most, with the most trustworthy (such as family numbers) in the first circle, and aides and caregivers are placed in a third or fourth circle.
Nevertheless, students often put caretakers in the first circle.
“It's so difficult to get the concepts across,” said Hoffman. “The kids don't get that aides and social workers are not their family. “
She also said that programs are only in place for the children that have more cognitive awareness and ability. The more developmentally disabled kids don't attend programs.
Julie Ann Petty, project trainer for Partners for Inclusive Communities at the Arkansas University Center on Disabilities at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and a member of the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities hopes to close the gap between law enforcement and the disable community.
She counsels disabled adults who have been abused as children, and also works to educate the larger community about interacting with persons with a disability.
Petty, a married mother of two with cerebral palsy, believes law enforcement training is key to helping the disabled community report more crime and abuse to official channels.
“Law enforcement (authorities) are not comfortable with people who have disabilities,” said Petty. “(For example) I have no control of my body and people might be scared of that.”
Massachusetts recognized the barriers to communication between the disability community and law enforcement in the late 1990s when a high profile sexual and physical abuse case against two individuals with a disability forced the state to change its procedures, said Elizabeth D. Scheibel, former District Attorney for the Northwestern District.
Scheibel chaired the statewide task force that eventually formed in 1999: “Building Partnerships for the Protection of Persons with Disabilities.”
“if we are not allowing disabled people equal access to the criminal justice system then shame on us,” said Scheibel.
The partnership, which Scheibel deems a best practice, formalized a memorandum of understanding between all the district attorneys in the state and adult and child protective services that typically investigate cases.
Law enforcement authorities are also trained how to work with the disabled community—in particular, with children reporting a crime.
Rainville, whose forthcoming book, Justice for Juveniles with Disabilities, will be released by the ABA's Center on Children and the Law later this year, likes to tell the story vstory of her first client—a young girl with cerebral palsy—as a way of illustrating how authorities can address the challenges of working with disabled child victims.
The girl let investigators know she was molested by drawing graphic pictures and words of what happened to her in the sand. The technique allowed investigators to identify 11 different people, many of whom turned out to be known sexual offenders.
“It made us realize that we can communicate in ways that we're able to hold up in court,” Rainville said.
Cara Tabachnick is Managing Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.