The Sexual Abuse of Children with Disabilities

Aug 22nd, 1970

Summer Torres Program Coordinator (Underserved Population & Training) As we work to raise awareness about child sexual abuse, it is vital that our efforts include all children and reflect the increased vulnerability of some populations. In particular, we must talk about the increased vulnerability of children with disabilities. Children with disabilities are, first and foremost, vulnerable because they are children. Children may be victimized by caretakers upon whom they are reliant or who exercise substantial control over a child’s well-being, safety, and access to outside resources. Children are also accustomed to accepting the authority of adults, and in the case of young children, this extends to their acceptance of adults’ authority to touch them. The dynamics of child sexual abuse create considerable barriers to disclosure. One study found that about 75% of sexually abused children wait over a month to tell anyone about the abuse, and nearly 50% wait over 5 years to disclose. Some never disclose. [1] This study did not include children with disabilities, but one can easily expect that these numbers are similar or even higher in this underserved and understudied population. The risk of victimization is heightened by both physical and intellectual disabilities. Mobility and communication barriers contribute to facets of this population’s vulnerability, making it difficult for victims to access support, escape from abusive situations, or disclose their abuse. Any type of disability appears to contribute to higher risk of victimization but intellectual disabilities, communication disorders, and behavioral disorders appear to contribute to even greater levels of risk. Children with disabilities are 3 times more likely to be victims of sexual abuse, with even higher rates reported in children with intellectual and/or mental health disabilities.[2]  While the previously mentioned statistic shows a high rate of victimization, there are significant gaps in knowledge of the scope of the problem. Much of the research that does exist is decades old, and definitions of disability vary from study to study. Societal stigma surrounding disability compounds this situation. This stigma is fed by ableism. Merriam Webster describes ableism as, “discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities”. [3] This discrimination can come in all forms; one such way is the censorship of knowledge. By limiting the knowledge of possible resources, access to these services plummets, leaving many child victims without a means of recovery or agency.  Children with disabilities are also frequently and systematically denied sexual education. Our culture too often mistakenly views individuals with disabilities as asexual and unable to participate in healthy and fulfilled relationships.  Without access to the sexual education that some other children receive, many children with disabilities face additional challenges distinguishing between appropriate and inappropriate behavior and consequently are not able to label certain behaviors as abuse. It is this lack of awareness, as well as other barriers, such as feelings of shame, self-guilt, and fear, that lead to even lower rates of disclosure. Empowering parents, caregivers, and teachers to advocate for the safety of our children is of utmost importance. Positive conversations around sexuality and consent can help create a safe space for children to talk about sex and to come forward if they have been abused. Arming parents and caregivers with the tools to prevent abuse and identify the signs and symptoms of victimization will only help to support victims in their journey to healing. In the fight against child sexual abuse, promoting education on sexual health and survivor services and creating safe environments that allow victims to disclose is of the utmost importance.  For individuals with disabilities, these prevention strategies must be carefully tailored to be effective.  For more detail information, see the following resources: Resources:  Sexual Abuse of Children with Disabilities: A National Snapshot (.PDF) -- report from the VERA Institute of Justice Common Myths and Misconceptions About People With Disabilities (.PDF) -- from Together We Rock Disability Etiquette (.PDF) -- from the United Spinal Association Creating Safety by Asking What Makes People Vulnerable (.PDF)* -- guidelines for working with people with disabilities Victims/Survivors Who Use Service Animals (.PDF)* -- guidance and sample policies for sexual assault and domestic violence programs *Collaborative guidance developed by the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and Disability Rights Wisconsin Wisconsin.
  [1] Smith et al, “Delay in Disclosure of Childhood Rape: Results from a National Survey,” 2000. [2] Lund, Emily M., and Vaughn-Jensen, J. “Victimization of Children with Disabilities, “The Lancet, Volume 380 (Issue 9845), 867-869, 2012. [3] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ableism
This article appeared in the Summer 2015 Issue of Frontline.

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