Decreasing the number of crimes committed against people with disabilities involves two primary strategies: preventing the abuse from happening in the first place and stopping those who abuse from continuing to do so. National and local prevention strategies are limited, while barriers in the criminal justice system prevent many people who are responsible for these crimes from being held accountable.
Limited Prevention Efforts
Efforts to prevent abuse, in general, are very limited. Those that do exist primarily focus on changing the behavior of those at risk of abuse through risk-reduction strategies. These equip children and people to identify and leave situations where they may be at risk of abuse. While risk-reduction is an important component of ending abuse, the curricula rarely identify the risks unique to children and adults with disabilities, such as the range of perpetrators and settings that individuals with disabilities encounter. Furthermore, these curricula are rarely offered in special education classes or other settings with high numbers of people with disabilities and, when they are, they are not tailored to the learning needs of individuals with disabilities.
Risk-reduction techniques only address possible ways for individuals to avoid abuse and do not focus on measures that stop the perpetrators of abuse. Minimal primary prevention efforts addressing societal norms, attitudes, and practices have been developed around abuse of people with disabilities. Of those efforts, virtually none have countered the norms, attitudes, and practices behind the inequities that shape the lives of people with disabilities. Without efforts to prevent abuse of people with disabilities, abuse continues unchecked.
Barriers to Holding Abusers Accountable
Victims turn to many places in the hopes of finding increased protections and, ultimately, an end to the abuse they have endured, among them: friends and family, trusted service providers, and the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system and some organizations – especially those that employ personal care attendants, transportation drivers, and other support personnel for people with disabilities – play an important role in holding those who abuse accountable for their actions and decreasing the likelihood they will abuse again in the future.
Research suggests that almost half of those who abuse people with disabilities are in positions that are responsible for their care, such as personal care attendants, transportation providers, and occupational therapists. The organizations responsible for hiring these positions have a critical role to play in preventing abuse and holding their employees accountable when they do abuse, yet gaps and barriers exist that prevent them from doing so. Among them:
- Information on how to build respect, develop strong relationships, and use positive techniques to support people with disabilities, as well as information on abuse and how to prevent it, is rarely included in employee trainings.
- When allegations of abuse, including those involving staff, are brought to the attention of the organization, they are often treated as administrative and not criminal issues. At best, the accused staff member is terminated from their position; at worst, he or she is allowed to remain in their position. In either case, law enforcement is rarely called.
- Basic background checks of potential employees are becoming more common; however, a criminal check only reveals convictions, which are rare in cases involving victims with disabilities because these cases rarely reach the criminal justice system.
Within the Criminal Justice System
Cases involving victims with disabilities face barriers at every step in the criminal justice process. Most law enforcement officers and prosecutors have not been equipped to investigate and prepare cases involving victims with disabilities. For example:
- They often struggle to understand a victim’s disability, how it impacts their experience, and how to best meet their needs during the process.
- They lack training on how to interview people with disabilities, especially those with intellectual disabilities.
- They don’t know how to prepare the court, including juries, for the accommodation(s) victims may need to fully participate.
- The credibility of victims with disabilities is commonly questioned throughout the criminal justice process.
Each of these barriers prevent law enforcement and prosecutors from effectively building a criminal case.
Few cases involving victims with disabilities make it to the criminal justice system and lead to arrest of the person(s) responsible; even fewer are prosecuted, and fewer still result in criminal conviction. These challenges leave many survivors with disabilities feeling dissatisfied, retraumatized, and at a loss for a solution. Moreover, they result in minimal to no consequences for the people responsible for the abuse, increasing the likelihood that their abusive behavior will continue.