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July 2014 Newsletter: A Preventative Approach to Protecting Children With Disabilities

Millions of children across the Nation are susceptible to victimization—perhaps none more so than those with disabilities, as we will learn in this month’s MECP Newsletter. Many children with disabilities, perhaps due to significant speech, language, or cognitive impairments, also have complex communication needs, and it is those very needs that make them “the perfect victim”—someone who is less likely to disclose an abusive incident and who may be dismissed by the justice system as an “incompetent” witness. For this reason, it is especially critical for those of us who serve young people to recognize the increased risk faced by children with disabilities—from perpetrators and by the very system tasked with protecting them.

Our first article, contributed by staff at the Temple University Institute on Disabilities, discusses some of the complex communication needs of victims with disabilities and offers tips for criminal justice practitioners to apply when supporting communication among these individuals. Our second article, by Meg Stone, Director of IMPACT: Ability Organizational Model, describes their organizational model and suggests how it can help other organizations prevent and respond effectively to reports of abuse. Our final article, by Shirley Paceley of Blue Tower Training, describes some of the resources available through her organization to help protect children with disabilities from sexual abuse and victimization.

To further raise awareness of this issue, MECP partnered with The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability for the 3rd Wednesday at 2 p.m. webinar series. Entitled “Protecting Children With Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities,” this month’s webinar explores common risk factors, the signs of victimization, and recommendations for communicating with children with disabilities.

3rd Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET Webinar Series: ProtectinSmiling childreng Children With Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities
For this month’s webinar, MECP partnered with Leigh Ann Davis, program manager of The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability. Ms. Davis discusses the range of intellectual and developmental disabilities, common types of violence perpetrated against children with disabilities, and the resources available to help criminal justice practitioners protect children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

To view the recording of the webinar, please click here.

Victims With Complex Communication Needs

Beverly Frantz, PhD, and Carrie Leonhart, MS, CCC-SLP, Temple University Institute on Disabilities

Individuals with disabilities face unique challenges when they encounter the criminal justice system—whether as victim, defendant, or witness. This is particularly true if they have complex communication needs due to significant speech, language, and/or cognitive impairments. Likewise, law enforcement officers, attorneys, judges, and victim service providers face similar challenges when interviewing and listening to victims with complex communication needs.

Research reports that people with all types of disabilities—intellectual, developmental, sensory, cognitive, and physical—are victimized at a higher rate than people without disabilities. For example, compared to women without disabilities, women with disabilities are more likely to experience physical and sexual violence, increased severity of violence, and multiple forms of violence. Depending upon the source, it is estimated that 25 percent to 83 percent of women with intellectual disabilities have been sexually abused. National datasets on victimization estimate that more than half the crimes against people with disabilities are never reported and that the rates for police follow-up, prosecution, and conviction of such crimes are lower. However, little is known about the experience of victimization among people with complex communication needs.

The difficulties with equal access to equal justice in reporting, investigating, and prosecuting crimes are particularly significant when the victim has complex communication needs. A survey of 40 adults who use augmentative and alternative communication found that 45 percent of the survey participants had experienced crime or abuse, yet only 28 percent had reported their experience to the police.1 When such an individual does file a criminal complaint, the court may decide that, because of the person’s communication disability, the victim is not a competent witness and may deny the victim the right to testify—as occurred with Rudy McDonough.2 Arguably, the best victim is one who cannot tell, so it is logical that people with complex communication needs are at significant risk for victimization.

For the purpose of this article, “complex communication needs” refers to someone who has difficulty communicating using only verbal speech.

Communication impairments can occur at any age. “Approximately 1.3 percent of all individuals have such significant communication disabilities that they cannot rely on their natural speech to meet their daily communication needs. Without access to speech, these individuals are severely restricted in their communication and participation in all aspects of life—education, family, and community.”3 Communication and cognition (e.g., the ability to think/reason, attention/focus, and memory) are interrelated; a person with an intellectual/developmental disability may also experience communication challenges. An uncomfortable environment, and the feelings it engenders, can also affect communication. Pain, anxiety, an unfamiliar room, strange lighting and noises can be distracting and can interfere with the ability of the victim to understand and/or recount an incident and express his/her wishes.

Law enforcement officers, attorneys, judges, and victim service professionals are vital in ensuring equal access to equal justice for victims with complex communication needs. Communication is key in disclosing and reporting criminal activity, testifying in court, and receiving support and services from victim service professionals. The extent to which a victim feels heard and understood depends upon the criminal justice professional’s knowledge and understanding of alternative means of communication.

A victim’s disability—even a significant speech impairment—does not disqualify him/her from providing accurate and competent information in a criminal proceeding. Tips for supporting communication include:

  • Be mindful that most people with communication disabilities can understand others better than they can express themselves.
  • Use introductions to share basic information about communication (e.g., how do you say “yes” and “no”; what should I do if I don’t understand you—tell you what I think you said? Ask additional questions? Try again later?).
  • Call on family members, friends, and care providers, who may be able to understand the victim best. However, remember that such persons may have a “stake” or bias in the situation. To begin the conversation, you may want to ask that individual to be present while you are getting acquainted with the communication style of the victim, and then ask the individual to leave the room.
  • Remember that language is abstract and unique to the culture. Many words have multiple meanings depending upon the context (e.g., ocean wave, hand wave, and waive your rights). Don’t assume that the person you are speaking with shares the same understanding of the word, slang, or humor you are using.
  • Learn to listen with your eyes as well as your ears. Facial expressions, body movements, and gestures are potent forms of communication.

IMPACT: Ability Organizational Model
Meg Stone, Director of IMPACT Ability

We all have the ability to stop abuse.

The IMPACT: Ability Organizational Model helps organizations prevent abuse and respond effectively to reports of abuse. Abuse prevention is best accomplished by a visible, coordinated effort that includes official policies, education, and an organizational culture that supports choice, welcomes challenging conversations, ensures respectful communication, and values healthy relationships.

However, in working with various organizations, we must still recognize that every organization is different. The specific actions each organization takes must match its mission and its culture. The IMPACT: Ability Organizational Model is a set of principles and practices that can be tailored to meet the unique needs of each organization. 

It’s important to know that when we bring attention to issues of abuse, the number of abuse reports often increases. For this reason, effective prevention includes having systems in place to respond to abuse reports and support the safety and healing of survivors.

At IMPACT: Ability, we often refer to individuals with disabilities as self-advocates. Some self-advocates receive support from our organization, while others are employees. The fifteen principles and practices that define our model are listed below.

Fifteen Principles and Practices of the IMPACT: Ability Organizational Model

1. Civil Rights of People With Disabilities and Understanding Ableism (Discrimination Against People With Disabilities)
2. Self-Advocacy and Choice
3. Abuse Prevention Leadership Teams
4. People With Disabilities Are Leaders in All Abuse Prevention Efforts
5. Written Policies on Abuse Prevention and Response
6. Personal/Intimate Care Policies That Honor Choice and Privacy
7. Education and Training for Employees
8. Education and Training for Self-Advocates Who Receive Services
9. Support for Healthy Relationships and Sexuality
10. Valuing and Supporting Employees
11. Trauma-Informed and Proactive Responses to Abuse Reports
12. Respectful Communication
13. Cultural Competence
14. Challenging Conversations
15. Visible Support From Senior Leadership and the Executive Director

To learn more about these principles and practices, please visit here.

Blue Tower Training
Shirley Paceley, Founder

Did you know that children with disabilities are three times more likely to be victims of sexual and other forms of abuse than children without disabilities? Did you know that children with disabilities are less likely to receive support for healing and justice following crime victimization? Did you know that children with disabilities are less likely to receive education about healthy relationships and the prevention of abuse?

Blue Tower Training was founded to provide training and other resources to address the hidden violence I saw in the lives of too many children and adults with disabilities. A division within the not-for-profit agency, Macon Resources, Inc., which specializes in services for children and adults with disabilities, Blue Tower Training provides technical assistance to organizations interested in the inclusion of people with disabilities in victim services and to other entities interested in creating safe, trauma-responsive organizations for people with disabilities. We offer a wealth of informative materials, including books, videos, CDs, card games, and curricula, for parents, professionals, and the organizations they work for, to help them prevent and respond to the sexual abuse of children, particularly those with disabilities.

One resource I like to recommend is called “I LIKE ME: Growing Songs for Healthy Children,” a music CD of prevention-related songs. The CD includes three activities per song, plus karaoke tracks to accompany children performing the songs. To learn more about Blue Tower Training services, please visit us at www.bluetowertraining.com.

Upcoming Events
August 7–8: CJJ Youth Summit. The Coalition for Juvenile Justice and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention are pleased to announce they will be cohosting the 2014 Juvenile Justice Youth Summit. The summit, which will take place August 7–8 in Washington, DC, will feature activities commemorating the 40th anniversary of passage of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.

August 11–14: 26th Annual Crimes Against Children Conference. Presented annually by the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center and the Dallas Police Department, this conference provides training to persons who work directly with child victims of crime through government and nonprofit agencies in the fields of law enforcement, child protective services, children’s advocacy, social work, therapy, and medicine.

August 18–27: Gang Resistance Education And Training (G.R.E.A.T.) Officer Training. G.R.E.A.T. Officer Training is a certification course sequentially designed to train participants in the fundamentals of the G.R.E.A.T. program, including how to interact effectively with the school system and the larger community, and how to implement and facilitate the middle and elementary school curricula and the summer component.
MECP Training Center

Request Training and Technical Assistance From MECP. MECP offers training and technical assistance tailored to meet the specific needs of State, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies, nonprofit organizations, and other juvenile justice practitioners. For information on how your agency or organization can receive training and technical assistance on missing and exploited children’s issues, please contact MECP at 1–888–347–5610 or [email protected]. To submit a request for training and technical assistance, please complete a training and technical assistance form.


1. Bryen, D.N., Carey, A., and Frantz, B. (2003). Ending the Silence: Adults Who Use Augmentative Communication and Their Experiences as Victims of Crimes. Augmentative and Alternative Communication 19(2): 125–34.

2. Boswell, S. (2011, Feb 15). Court Access for People with Aphasia: Case to Determine Permissibility of Communication Accommodations. The ASHA Leader.

3. Beukelman, D., and Mirenda, P. (2005). Augmentative and Alternative Communication: Supporting Children and Adults with Complex Communication Needs (3rd ed.). Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.