October 23, 2018

The Dark Secret of Sexual Assaults

Fact No. 1: People with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at a rate seven times higher than those without disabilities, according to Department of Justice data reported by NPR.

The public-radio network has been airing an eight-part series on the horrifically high number of sexual assaults perpetrated upon one of the most vulnerable segments of our population: people with intellectual disabilities. Titled “Abused and Betrayed,” the report, based on a yearlong investigation, has many disturbing facts and searing personal stories on a topic that long has been whispered about. As a parent of a young adult with developmental disabilities, listening to this series has been very difficult.

Fact No. 2: Predators target people with intellectual disabilities because they know the victims can be easily manipulated and will have difficulty testifying later. The predators typically are staff members of facilities where the victims visit or live, or they are family friends.

There was the story of Maryann, 58, who is nonverbal but uses some sign language. She has lived in a Washington state institution since she was 10. A staff worker walked into Maryann’s room late one night in 2016 and saw the night supervisor, Terry Wayne Shepard, with his pants down behind Maryann.

The police report details what that worker said: “She advised me that Shepard had the client’s legs pinned up to her chest and that he was making back and forth movements like he was having sex….” Shepard had worked at the facility for 34 years.

It was later learned that there had been numerous previous allegations of sexual assault by Shepard. When investigators visited the facility, another female resident, 66, said he had hit her in the head and touched her breasts and genitals. Shepard is now in jail, awaiting trial.

Fact No. 3: Even when sexual assault victims who have disabilities speak up,  these crimes go mostly unrecognized, unprosecuted and unpunished.

There’s the story of Pauline, 46, who was living with her paid caregiver and her extended family when, in February 2016, she was raped in the basement of the caregiver’s home by two boys, ages 12 and 13, who were part of that extended family.

One boy was a foster child of the paid caregiver while the other was the caregiver’s adopted son.

Predators target people with intellectual disabilities because they know the victims can be easily manipulated.

The two boys confessed to police that they had raped Pauline. But the foster mother who reported the rapes to police later pressured Pauline to change her story to say that the acts were consensual. Eventually, the two juveniles were found guilty and sent to a state treatment center. The foster mother was tried on separate charges of giving false information to police with the intent to try to implicate someone.

The outcome of Pauline’s case was not typical. Predatory sexual assault cases rarely reach a courtroom or end in a conviction. Police have trouble investigating the crimes, and prosecutors don’t often take these cases into court, knowing their odds of winning are slim.

Many victims have trouble communicating and recalling details of the crime.

Fear of sexual assault weighs heavily on parents’ minds, which is why  many prefer to keep their adult child with intellectual disabilities at home, even when there are government-paid, licensed options available.

As hard as it can be to learn about the abuse of people with intellectual disabilities, the only way to reduce this crime is to take it out of the shadows and put it into the bright light of public knowledge and awareness.

The entire series is available at npr.org/series/575502633/abused-and-betrayed.


Michelle K. Wolf is a special needs parent activist and nonprofit professional. She is the founding executive director of the Jewish Los Angeles Special Needs Trust.