E arly in January, National Public Radio ran a multiday series of stories about sex abuse and people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It was the kind of listening that reduced this mother to tears.
The statistics are horrendous. People with intellectual disabilities — like the Williams Syndrome my younger daughter, Mary, was born with — are more than seven times as likely to be sexually abused as those without a disability, according to numbers the U.S. Justice Department provided to NPR reporter Joseph Shapiro.
Abuse happens at home, at work, during the day and at night, and all too often, the victim knows his or her abuser. And while abuse may be underreported in the general population, it’s even less likely to be reported by someone with an intellectual disability.
The outcomes, even when assaults are reported, are less likely to be satisfactory than when the victim is not disabled. Victims with disabilities have spent most of their lives relying on others in ways the nondisabled population does not. They’re taught to do as they’re told and to trust the authority figures in their lives, even when those figures may not deserve trust.
And, should charges be brought, guilty verdicts can be harder to come by. Victims are more susceptible to being talked into changing their stories; their speech may be difficult to understand; their behavior may seem odd, and they may have trouble describing an assault in detail or in a proper time sequence. At least some jurors, and even judges, have said victims did not behave as they believed victims should.
All that leaves parents and families in a quandary. How do we go about protecting our children, or siblings or other relatives from such abuse?
I spoke about the subject with Dr. Sondra Marshall, a licensed psychologist in the St. Charles Health System, and Dianna Hansen, executive director of the Central Oregon Disability Support Network.
While both women spoke about education, Marshall talked about being a vigilant supporter of someone with a disability. Vigilance means a variety of things.
Know who your family member’s caretakers are, and, if you hire them, Google the names of job candidates. Check references, and if you’re concerned about getting honest response, dig deeper.
It’s also important to pay attention to your family member, Marshall says. If his or her behavior changes — they quit sleeping, complain about physical problems, change eating habits or something else — look into the problem.
Hansen emphasizes the value of education. Teach your child the names of his or her body parts instead of using cute nicknames. Teach your kids, and not just those with intellectual disabilities, about “good” touches and “bad” ones, and be certain they understand that no touching, good or bad, is allowed without their permission. That permission-first rule applies across the board, even to physicians.
Hansen says parents should work to have children with disabilities included with the general population in as many settings as possible. Being surrounded by nondisabled peers can help keep them safe.
Teach them, too, about what behavior is appropriate in various settings — no kissing at the office, for example. Her office has a variety of resources for parents.
Both women say it’s important, critical, really, to keep talking to your relative even after you might think the lessons are done. Reinforcing what’s been taught before is never a bad thing. Too, periodic questions about how life is going, how a person is being treated, may bring surprising results, although knowing what is going on and being able to respond to it is better than learning about something terrible after the fact.
I occasionally joke that, thanks to Mary, I’m unlikely to be an empty nester. The truth is, however, that most parents never quite shake the worries of parenthood. We want our children to be safe, and we’re willing to work to see that they are.
— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin. Contact: 541-617-7821, firstname.lastname@example.org