Column | There is hard work to do to prevent sexual abuse of our most vulnerable
The world has turned its eyes to Arizona after a local headline caused an international public outcry – and for good reason: “State officials investigate after patient in nursing facility gives birth.” A Phoenix woman reportedly has been in a vegetative state for over a decade, unable to give consent to sex – but just before New Year’s Day she moaned in pain and staff members realized she was in labor. How could this have happened? How did no one notice she was pregnant? At first glance, the extreme cruelty seems unprecedented.
Sadly, each week we receive a roundup of stories from across the country of others with disabilities who have been molested, raped and even impregnated. Sexual abuse of people with cognitive disabilities indeed exists in Arizona. Consider these headlines: “A juvenile assaulted by a Mesa caregiver,” “A Tucson man convicted of raping a 67-year old woman with a disability.”
In 2018, National Public Radio and the U.S. Department of Justice revealed that people with cognitive disabilities were seven times more likely to be victims of sexual assault as people without disabilities. A 2012 national study also showed that 30 percent of survey respondents with disabilities had been sexually abused. Similarly, a 2017 study conducted in Florida of teen survivors of sex trafficking found that 30 percent of those adolescents had cognitive disabilities.
We know we have a problem, but we’ve only scratched the surface in Arizona. Locally, no such data is tracked.
Despite these statistics, there has largely been silence around this issue for several reasons. Many people don’t consider those with cognitive disabilities as inherently sexual beings. Some individuals may not understand appropriate touch or conflate “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” with a staff member, family member, or acquaintance. The person may also be more likely to believe a perpetrator’s threats or expressions of love. Perpetrators also know it could be difficult to prove a victim’s report, making it easy to avoid prosecution.
Currently, Arizona requires background checks among providers who work with vulnerable populations, but less than 1 percent of all abuse claims are ever substantiated by Adult Protective Services. A repeat offender may never be charged, and their paper trail of repeat allegations never fully investigated. Furthermore, trainings about defining, recognizing and reporting signs of sexual abuse are not required for state-funded residential providers. Neither are trainings routinely offered to youth and adults with disabilities or families and guardians. And unlike many states, Arizona does not allocate any state funding to sexual assault specific services or prevention efforts.
Over the last several months the Arizona Developmental Disabilities Planning Council (ADDPC) has convened a workgroup of state agencies, researchers, advocacy organizations, and people with disabilities to advise on research measuring the impact of sexual abuse on Arizonans with disabilities, the state’s response, and best practices we can put in place. In addition, this group is working toward making recommendations on how to tighten regulations, strengthen existing state statutes, and provide statewide training.
We have a lot of work to do to prevent sexual abuse of our most vulnerable. Only with greater awareness and resources can these heartbreaking incidents be stopped. The time to act is now.
Dr. Erica McFadden serves as the executive director for the Arizona Developmental Disabilities Planning Council, which provides training, advocacy, research and support for full inclusion of people with developmental disabilities.
Dr. Tasha Menaker serves as the chief strategy officer of the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, which provides support and resources for sexual and domestic violence survivors and their loved ones, statewide training on appropriately responding to survivors, and public policy advocacy.