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August 2013: Victimization of Children with Disabilities

Children with cognitive and developmental disabilities are a unique population vulnerable to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Too often, these children are targeted because of their disability, whether it is their lack of communication skills, limited mobility, or inability to understand and comprehend situations. Offenders who prey on these children are typically those who care for them, have easy access to them, or are close to their families. Effective handling of these cases depends on the interviewer’s ability to gather information about what happened from the child victim and the offender.

Expanding on the webinar released earlier this month entitled “Interviewing Children with Disabilities,” this newsletter will provide a more in-depth look at how the criminal justice field can better serve children with disabilities. Our first article features The Arc, a national community-based organization that advocates for and provides services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families. Leigh Ann Davis, a project and information specialist of The Arc’s chapter and leadership development discusses the prevalence of victimization of individuals with disabilities and provides an overview of The Arc and its mission. Our second article provides a look at “Sexual Abuse of Children with Disabilities: A National Snap Shot”, a project sponsored by the Vera Institute of Justice Center on Victimization and Safety and the Ms. Foundation for Women. The authors of the report, Nancy Smith and Sandra Harrell, offer a summary about the brief and its outcomes.


Webinar: Interviewing Children with Disabilities

Presented by Pauline Lucero-Esquivel, MA, LSMW, LPPC, from Corazon Training and Consulting. This webinar addresses interviewing techniques and methods of obtaining information from abused children with developmental and cognitive disabilities. Pauline draws on her expertise and many years of experience working with unique populations to provide an in-depth discussion of various techniques. The presentation also discusses cultural and physical considerations for interviewing or communicating with children with disabilities. To view the recording of this webinar, please visit MECP’s Webinar Page here.


Hidden Victims: Supporting Child Victims with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Provided by: Leigh Ann Davis, MSSW, MPA, Project & Information Specialist, The Arc

Perhaps because the victimization of children and teens with disabilities is so well hidden, rarely prosecuted, or even acknowledged widely, many people do not realize that it is a common occurrence across the United States, even more common than victimization of children without disabilities. These crimes are happening every day in family homes, group homes, buses or other means of transportation, as well as at schools, churches, soccer practices, summer camps, and public restrooms. Anywhere children are, especially children with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), the risk of victimization is real and continuing. Chapters of The Arc, located in 700 communities throughout the country, are working with local law enforcement and social service agencies to protect people with I/DD and support victims in their healing process.

Since children with disabilities of any kind are not identified in crime statistic systems in the United States, it is impossible to determine an exact risk for abuse[1]. However, research conducted in 2002 found that children with any type of disability are 3.44 times more likely to be victimized than children without disabilities [2].

When researchers have looked more closely at what disabilities make children more susceptible to certain kinds of abuse, the numbers are eye-opening. One study found that those with behavior disorders face greater risk of physical abuse, whereas those with speech/language disorders are at risk for neglect[3]. Of particular concern is a study that found that, out of all types of disabilities, children with behavior disorders and those with intellectual disabilities were at increased risk for all three forms of abuse or victimization (neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse) compared to children with other types of disabilities (speech/language disorders, hearing impairments, learning disabilities, health impairments, and attention deficit disorder)[4].  A 2012 report from the World Health Organization, which published the findings of a pioneering study that pooled prevalence estimates on violence against children with disabilities from 1990–2010, says that up to one quarter of children with disabilities will experience violence within their lifetimes, and that thus children with disabilities must be viewed as a high-risk group.

More recently, public awareness has focused on two specific areas—bullying and human trafficking. One study found that nearly half of all U.S. children with autism are victims of bullying, and people with disabilities remain one of the most at-risk groups of being trafficked, including children and teens[5]. According the U.S. Department of State, “the stigma and marginalization of a person with disabilities creates a particular vulnerability. For example, parents who see no hope of jobs or marriage for their disabled children may place those children in exploitative situations with the intent of shedding a ‘burden’ or seeking income. Where schools fail to accommodate students with disabilities, high drop-out rates leave them on the streets and at much higher risk of being trafficked in forced begging or other criminal activities. The commonly held view that persons with disabilities are not sexually active increases the risk of sex trafficking for persons with disabilities, especially disabled women and girls.”

The Arc is breaking the silence on behalf of children who have no or limited capacity to stop crimes against them or get help after victimization occurs. As the Nation’s oldest and largest nonprofit supporting the rights of people with I/DD, The Arc engages in some type of justice advocacy at most of its more than 700 chapters. The Arc works with law enforcement, victim assistance, and similar justice-related agencies to address concerns faced by people with I/DD who encounter the justice system at the local, State, and national levels. To be effective, help for victimized children and their families requires that supporters

  • Know what local resources are available for counseling, support groups, and recovery groups, making sure that professionals have expertise in counseling children with disabilities;
  • Provide referrals to agencies and organizations that teach prevention and safety training for children with I/DD, such as chapters of The Arc;
  • Connect families to their local victim service agencies and ensure that disability advocates work closely with victim advocates so that cases are successfully prosecuted;
  • Advocate for provision of appropriate accommodations throughout the court process; and
  • Use a cross-disciplinary team approach of professionals (e.g., crime victim advocates, disability advocates, law enforcement personnel, legal professionals) to address the unique challenges raised in cases involving child victims with disabilities.

It is no one’s fault that a victimization happens, except the perpetrator’s. Parents, other caregivers, and the child should never blame themselves. The only way to make progress on ending violence against children with disabilities is by working together. It is critical that family members and advocates from the criminal justice, victim assistance, and disability communities cooperate to aggressively defend the safety and security that each child with disabilities deserves. Hidden victimization leads to hidden wounds that can last a lifetime, keeping people from reaching their full potential and allowing criminals easy access to their next victims. Inquirers can learn more about how to break the cycle by visiting The Arc’s Web site (www.thearc.org) and connecting with the local chapter.


Supporting Children with Disabilities Post-Victimization

Provided by: Sandra Harrell and Nancy Smith, Center of Victimization and Safety, Vera Institute of Justice

According to a 2012 study released by the World Health Organization, children with disabilities are three times more likely than children without disabilities to be victimized, and the likelihood is even higher for children with certain types of disabilities, such as intellectual or mental health disabilities.[6] In March 2012, the Center on Victimization and Safety, of the Vera Institute of Justice, and the Ms. Foundation for Women launched a project to address sexual abuse of children with disabilities. The first phase of the project sought a better understanding of this problem and what is being done to address it by conducting a literature review, interviews with key stakeholders, and a roundtable of national experts. The full findings from this effort are detailed in a new report authored by the Vera Institute of Justice entitled “Sexual Abuse of Children with Disabilities: A National Snapshot.”

The Vera Institute and the Ms. Foundation identified several factors that contribute to the high rate of victimization of children with disabilities. One overarching factor is the oppression of people with disabilities in our society. The general devaluation of people with disabilities creates an environment in which victimization of children with disabilities can thrive unnoticed and unchecked. This environment includes the tendencies to isolate and segregate children with disabilities and to design services and supports that are inaccessible to them, as well as general societal attitudes towards people with disabilities that undermine their credibility and value.

Additionally, many prevailing attitudes and practices of the “community of support” for children with disabilities increase the risk of victimization for children with disabilities. In a flawed attempt to protect these children, information about healthy sexuality and rights to privacy have been systematically denied them, depriving them of an expectation of privacy and a vocabulary for discussing sexual experiences. Thus, when they are victimized, they often do not realize that what happened was a crime or have the ability to communicate it to the authorities.

Another contributing factor is that victimizing adults exploit vulnerabilities in our systems to abuse these children with impunity. These offenders often seek out employment and other opportunities to gain access to the children, including employment and other opportunities in the disability services sector. Because children with disabilities often require specialized and frequent services, they come into frequent contact with these offenders. Compounding this vulnerability is the tendency for disability services to handle complaints of abuse as an administrative matter, a practice that prevents a record of the offense. Since there is rarely a criminal complaint, background checks do not yield future employers any reason not to employ the same perpetrator. Thus, perpetrators are able to move from agency to agency to seek victims.

Understanding these unique factors in the lives of children with disabilities can better position victim service providers to support them. Addressing barriers to access within services and supports is a crucial first step. Service staff must become comfortable working with children with disabilities. Staff must also provide reasonable and effective accommodations to these children, allowing ample time when working with them and understanding the ethics of working with an interpreter or facilitator. Finally, service providers must be prepared to work within the framework of the lived experience of a child with a disability. Children with disabilities are denied adequate information about their rights, about sexual education, and the possibility of victimization, so providers need to alter their strategies for interviewing and intervention to allow for this reality. In talking with child victims, they must draw from common experiences in the lives of children with disabilities, such as being transferred into a wheelchair or having a caregiver assist with personal hygiene.

The Issue Brief can be downloaded at:http://www.vera.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/sexual-abuse-of-children-with-disabilities-national-snapshot.pdf


Additional Resources

For more information and research about the abuse of children with disabilities, please visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Child Welfare Information Gateway.


Upcoming Events

September 10–11, 2013: Accessible Justice: Serving Child Victims with Disabilities Conference

The Children’s Advocacy Centers of North Dakota (CACND) are hosting their second annual Accessible Justice: Serving Child Victims with Disabilities conference in Fargo, North Dakota. The purpose of the conference is to increase the knowledge, skills, and aptitudes of service providers and other professionals who work with children with disabilities who are also victims of abuse. There will be an array of presenters with years of experience in the field that will use their expertise to help improve the skillsets and abilities of other professionals encountering these cases. For more information about the conference or to find out how to register, please visit the CACND Web site at http://cacnd.com/home/cacndhome.html.

January 26–31, 2014: The 28th Annual San Diego International Conference on Child and Family Maltreatment

The Chadwick Center proudly announces the 28th Annual San Diego International Conference on Child and Family Maltreatment. The San Diego Conference offers an agenda of evidence- and research-based topics, as well as current thinking and new ideas. International experts and practitioners in the field will explain science-based interventions using their practical experience and real-world solutions. For more information, please visit www.sandiegoconference.org.


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We Want to Hear From You!

MECP invites you to share your stories about your organization’s contributions to the juvenile justice field. It is our goal to expand awareness about all the issues surrounding missing children and child exploitation as well as increase understanding of the impact of your work—its value for practice, policy, ongoing research, advocacy and more importantly, for youth, their families, and their communities. We would also like to promote networking opportunities so organizations throughout the country can connect with one another.

Help others by sharing your success story. The most captivating will be featured in our monthly newsletter. To submit your story, please visit us online here. Thank you for all you do to make a positive difference in our children’s lives.



1. Sullivan, P. M. (2003). Violence against children with disabilities: Prevention, public policy, and research implications. Conference Commissioned Paper for the National Conference on Preventing and Intervening in Violence Against Children and Adults with Disabilities (May 6–7, 2002), SUNY Upstate Medical University, NY.

2. Sullivan, P. & Knutson, J. (2000). Maltreatment and disabilities: A population-based epidemiological study. Child Abuse & Neglect, 24(10), 1257–1273

3. Sullivan, P. M. (2003). Violence against children with disabilities: Prevention, public policy, and research implications. Conference Commissioned Paper for the National Conference on Preventing and Intervening in Violence Against Children and Adults with Disabilities (May 6–7, 2002), SUNY Upstate Medical University, NY.

4. Sullivan, P., & Knutson, J. (1998). The association between child maltreatment and disabilities in a hospital-based epidemiological study. Child Abuse & Neglect, 22(4), 271–288.

5. Sterzing, P. R., Shattuck, P. T., Narendorf, S. C., Wagner, M., & Cooper, B. P. (2012). Bullying involvement and autism spectrum disorders: Prevalence and correlates of bullying involvement among adolescents with an autism spectrum disorder. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 1–7.

6. Lund, Emily M., & Vaughn-Jensen, J. (2012). Victimization of Children with Disabilities.The Lancet, 380(9845), 867–869.