Violence Against People with Disabilities

Persons with disabilities are more likely to be victims of violence than are persons without disabilities. They are also more likely to know the perpetrator and suffer from violence longer. In many cases, as with the general population, the crimes go unreported by either the victim or witnesses. Fortunately, many states are making it mandatory to report violence against persons with disabilities.

The Statistics

The rate of violent victimization is more than twice as high for people with disabilities than for people without disabilities, according to survey results presented by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). The rates of severely violent victimization, such as rape, sexual assault, robbery, or aggravated assault are more than three times as high. The 2013 statistics cited by the BJS showed 24 percent of violent crime victims with disabilities believed the perpetrator targeted them because of their disability, up from 13 percent in 2009. Those with cognitive disabilities saw the highest rates of victimization at 67 per 1,000 cases, while those with hearing disabilities had the lowest rate at 17 per 1,000. Slightly more than half of violent crimes against persons with disabilities in 2013 involve persons with multiple disabilities. Compared with persons of other races, whites and blacks with disabilities had higher rates of violent victimization. Males and females with disabilities experienced similar victimization rates in 2013. The rates of victimization for males with disabilities were more than twice as high as for males without disabilities, and victimization rates for females with disabilities were nearly three times as high for females without such disabilities. The abuse that women with disabilities report also lasts longer and is more intense, according to the Office on Women’s Health. Persons with disabilities are more likely to know the person who commits a crime against them. In the BJS survey, 41 percent of persons with disabilities who experienced a violent crime said it was committed by an acquaintance or someone they knew well. Surprisingly, most violent crimes against persons with disabilities occur in the daytime. About 58 percent of violent crime against persons with disabilities occurred during the daytime, compared to 53 percent of violent crimes against those without.

Reporting the Crime

More than half of all violent crimes against persons with disabilities went unreported, with victims reporting only about 48 percent of crimes against them in 2013. In the BJS survey, 44 percent of respondents said they did not report the crime to the police because they dealt with the crime in another way. About one in five said they did not think the crime was important enough to report. Nearly 20 percent of victims said they did not report the crime because they thought the police would not help. Failure to report violence allows crimes to continue longer. Persons with disabilities are also more likely to suffer abuse by healthcare providers or caregivers, who can deny medicine or refuse to help with daily needs. Caregivers could also withhold assistive devices, such as braces or wheelchairs, which allow the victim to get away. They might also deny the victim the use of communication devices, such as telephones, cell phones and computers. There was a bit of good news in the BJS survey in that victims with disabilities were more likely to accept assistance from victim services agencies than were victims without disabilities.

Mandatory Reporting Laws

All states have some laws requiring healthcare professionals report suspected cases of abuse and many states are working to improve reporting. Colorado passed the Mandatory Abuse Report For Adult With A Disability law in 2015, for example, which calls for mandatory reporting of abuse, mistreatment, exploitation or neglect of at-risk adults including intellectual and developmental disabilities. In the Colorado bill summary, the authors note that “fear of mistreatment is one of the major personal concerns of at-risk persons and at-risk persons are more vulnerable to and disproportionately damaged by crime in general but, more specifically by abuse, exploitation and neglect because they are less able to protect themselves against offenders, a number of whom are in positions of trust, and because they are more likely to receive serious injury from crimes committed against them and not to fully recover from such injury.” The general assembly also found that “penalties for specified crimes committed against at-risk persons should be more severe than the penalties for the commission of the same crimes against other members of society.” North Carolina recently passed “Burt’s Law,” which requires anyone who witnesses sexual assault of a group home resident to report the crime to the local Department of Social Services, law enforcement and the District Attorney within 24 hours. Failure to do so results in a Class A1 misdemeanor. Burt’s Law also increases the penalty for anyone who intentionally injures a person with special needs at a facility. Burt’s Law is named after Burt Powell, a 37-year-old man with developmental disabilities. Workers at the nursing home where Burt lived knew that a manager was sexually abusing Powell, but did not report it because the abuser had threatened their jobs. The abuser told Burt he would hurt members of the Powell family if Burt told them about the abuse. All states have some level of mandatory reporting laws. Kentucky and Oregon also have mandatory reporting laws in place. Illinois only requires employees of the Department of Human Services (DHS) and employees of agencies receiving DHS funds or under regulation of DHS to report abuse and neglect. As of 2011, 32 states had already enacted hate crime statutes to protect persons with disabilities but many states had not. Only a handful had adequate mandatory reporting laws. Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 that filled in some of the gaps in protection and brought a unified approach to hate crime victims, including those with disabilities. Implementing mandatory reporting will help protect millions of persons with disabilities in the future.

Lynn Hetzler

Lynn Hetzler has been a leading writer in the medical field for 20 years. She specializes in creating informative and engaging medical content for patients, researchers, providers, and leaders in healthcare.

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