Abuse and Disability: Why Can’t We Slow the Traffic at This Intersection?


The Busiest Intersections

The intersection of the 101 and 405 freeways in Los Angeles is one of the busiest in the world. Traffic never lets up in any direction. In search of relief the city has expanded the freeway, increased access on secondary roads around this intersection, widened the freeway and created carpool lanes. The congestion continues at all hours, every day.

There’s another intersection that is similar in nature. It’s the place where abuse meets disability and if you have a disability, you cross at your own risk. Efforts to slow down the traffic have met with limited success. As the number of people with a disability has increased over the years, so too has the incidence of abuse. A parallel crossing of abuse and no disability has far less traffic.

California Watch’s Shocking Report

Occasionally a news story on abuse comes along that shocks and outrages us. Such is the report by Ryan Gabrielson of California Watch published in February. This well-documented and thorough report raises questions about the level of care for 1800 Californians with cerebral palsy, mental disabilities and severe autism. It found 850 documented cases in the past three years of patient abuse or unexplained injuries at the five Developmental Centers run by the state. In three years, there were only two related arrests. The report documents a sustained pattern of abuse, shoddy and non-existent investigations, cover-ups and little to no accountability. One of the deaths is described as a homicide of a man with autism. Internal investigators failed to protect evidence and waited five days to interview witnesses.

This report reminds us not only of abuse’s insidious presence, but that the systems for risk reduction, intervention, treatment and accountability have failed. When systemic failures occur we must first realize that these are real people who lose their lives in the worst of these cases, and are shattered in many others. Their families want and deserve answers and justice. If this report does not cause advocates to pay attention longer than the usual news cycle, we should expect no relief at this busy intersection.

When those ultimately responsible for protecting people with disabilities infer that the problem isn’t all that serious, it’s under control, every incident is documented, they are holding people accountable with their zero tolerance policies and bringing in consultants or establishing special units to fix it, we can’t help but ask rhetorically; where and when have we heard this before? And; where in all of these face-saving words can you find one syllable of sympathy for the victims? And finally; if zero tolerance is the standard, why shouldn’t those in charge at the highest level be held to the same standard?

Three Things that Contribute to this Busy Intersection

There are three things that make the intersection of abuse and disability a busy place. Isolation – Abuse usually occurs when others are not present or when those who would disapprove or report the behavior are not. Power that one person has over another in close proximity – Whether it’s the workplace, a school classroom, a group home, a ward of an institution, the hallway of a middle or high school, the power or perceived power that one person has over another is a key ingredient. Vulnerability — When you examine vulnerable groups it appears that ones with less ability to defend themselves are abused at a higher rate. Add a cognitive disability to any of these groups across the life span and you find the highest rates. When these three things are present you have one of the busiest intersections imaginable.

We Must Not Accept the Status Quo

The three factors above are a reality of our culture. How we live and the way we choose that others live, means abuse will continue. The fact that we cannot totally eliminate abuse should make us even more vigilant and diligent about putting in place the safeguards that will expose it, investigate it, prosecute it when warranted, and properly support the victims. Instead, our institutions — churches, state and federal bureaucracies, schools, and prisons — speed through the intersection with little chance of getting caught. While abuse is certainly not limited to these larger places, they should be setting the example for the rest of society.

When there are no consequences, these settings become breeding grounds for abuse. But understanding why abuse of vulnerable people continues does not absolve advocates of the responsibility to promote risk reduction measures and hold people accountable when it is clearly evident. Now is an important time for the voices of outrage and compassion to be heard and to demand change.

Victims and Their Families are Beginning to Speak Up

Thankfully, this is occurring for many vulnerable individuals and groups at a level not previously seen. Bullies are being exposed and victims of bullying are receiving help, workplace abuse is getting considerable attention and abuse of gay people is discussed and condemned as never before. While awareness for these groups is increasing, we believe that too little attention is paid to abuse of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Legislative Action on Developmental Center Abuse

In California, the Legislature is taking action on the issue of reporting and investigation. After a hearing triggered by the California Watch report, two bills have surfaced that address aspects of the problems in Developmental Centers. One of these is SB 1051 (Liu and Emmerson) and creates a Director of Protective Services in each Center, and that person, a real law enforcement officer, would report to the Secretary of California Health And Human Services. That’s a good start. You can read that bill by going to this link http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/bilinfo.html and then typing in the bill number.

The Developmental Centers may need the most immediate action in California but addressing the reporting of abuse for one disability group does little to reduce its incidence or ensure adequate help for abuse victims.

Abuse of people with disabilities is a problem that can no longer be swept under the rug, partly because of social media. The National Survey on Abuse of People with Disabilities may be a beginning step to understanding some of the most pressing issues. Please take a few minutes to complete this online survey. That busy intersection of abuse and disability needs to be a road less traveled.

Click here so you can take it now.