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Violence Against the Mentally Disabled Poses Dilemma for Families

Crime: They are seen as easy prey who won't resist, won't tell or, even if they do, won't be believed. Neither institutions nor the outside world can ensure their safety.


NEW YORK — One girl was riding her bicycle. The other was heading home from middle school. Both were mentally disabled. Both were gang-raped.

The attacks occurred within two weeks of each other this fall, on opposite sides of the country.

While authorities in Marietta, Ga., and Berkeley pursued 30 suspects, ranging in age from 11 to 25, advocates for the developmentally disabled absorbed the grim news without surprise.

"There is an epidemic of violent crime against this population," said Daniel Sorensen, chairman of the California Victims of Crime Committee. "What is amazing is how invisible this problem has been."

Studies over the last decade suggest that mentally disabled people are at least four times more likely than other Americans to be targets of sexual assault and other violence. Some studies indicate that more than 75% of mentally disabled women are sexually abused.

While most Americans may be scarcely aware of this problem, parents of disabled children know the dangers all too well--and yet are torn about how to respond.

Many families now view mental institutions skeptically, as last-resort options that guarantee neither immunity from abuse nor an optimal living environment. But the recommended alternative--"mainstreaming" a disabled child as part of the community at large--brings its own set of risks.

"The reality is that just putting them away somewhere doesn't make them safer," said Wendy Abramson, who runs a safety awareness program in Austin, Texas, for families with developmentally disabled children.

"It is a balancing act," Abramson said. "How can I make sure this person is safe and yet help them participate in their communities? It is a dilemma. It is complex. It is scary."

Rosemary Alexander, a special education coordinator in Austin, has felt those fears as she watched her severely disabled son move through childhood.

"My son at 18 can't talk, can't read, can't write," she said. "He's very vulnerable. He doesn't have a way to tell us what's happened; he doesn't have the skills to defend himself, to avoid trouble coming his way."

Alexander said her "best defense" is to screen the people who help care for her son, but she anticipates new worries when he eventually moves into a group home.

"With underpaid staff and a high turnover rate, he could be much more vulnerable," she said. "You have to get to know the people, drop in often, make unexpected visits."

For all her worries, she wants her son to be part of society.

"I've always believed he needs as many opportunities as possible to meet a wide variety of people in a wide variety of settings," Alexander said. "He needs to be out there--so I just hope for the best."

Dick Sobsey, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Alberta, is one of North America's leading experts on violence against the disabled. His research suggests that many disabled people are abused by their caretakers in institutions, and many others are abused by relatives.

"Unfortunately, the risk is there in all of these places," he said in a telephone interview. "There was better cover-up in the institutions. I think that's still the case."

Although reluctant to provide specific advice to families, he offered some general guidelines.

"Parents should pay attention if their children give a feeling that something's not safe, that maybe they are uncomfortable spending time with someone," Sobsey said. "It doesn't mean the situation is always abusive, but paying attention to those signals makes sense."

He urged families to establish a network of acquaintances who care about the disabled person.

"Having friends in the neighborhood helps keep people safe more than it puts them at risk," he said. "Trying to keep someone isolated often backfires."

Sorensen, whose severely brain-damaged son died at age 30, said many parents inadvertently raise their developmentally disabled children to be "perfect victims."

"We often deny their sexuality," he said. "That's wrong. . . . People with disabilities need to be given information about their emerging sexuality and the tools to ensure their personal safety."

Abramson said her program in Austin encourages families to provide education about sexuality.

"A person with disabilities may have a gut feeling that something has happened they know is wrong," she said. "If they haven't been given education about different kind of touches that are OK and not OK, they'll be less likely to communicate it. A lot don't receive that kind of education."

In Vermont, a troupe called the Awareness Theater Company travels to schools and community centers, staging a 35-minute performance to raise awareness about abuse against the developmentally disabled. The cast and most of the audiences include people with and without disabilities.

Emily Anderson, the director, described an emotional meeting two years ago when the company was formed and participants took turns telling the others about themselves.

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