Conference in Orlando Florida, 12/11: Responding to Crime Victims with Disabilities

This was the second conference fully sponsored by the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) of the U.S. Department of Justice. It was held in a beautiful resort hotel in Orlando, at the J.W. Marriott, with overflow accommodations at the nearby Ritz Carlton only a two-minute walk away on the same property. Nearly 500 people attended from all over the United States as well as Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Marianas, including 80 presenters who shared their knowledge and expertise. It was a fantastic showing, probably the best of any conference of this kind to date!

The overall allocation for this conference, at $550,000, had been awarded to the National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC). NCVC was the host of both conferences fully funded by OVC focusing on this topic. The first was held in Denver, Colorado in October of 2009, with Kevin O’Brian of NCVC at the helm. This is a huge investment to support crime victims with disabilities, and demonstrates the ongoing commitment of OVC to these victims. This level of commitment is deeply appreciated by those of us “in the trenches” who have for years been advocating for victims of crimes who have disabilities.

All of this is primarily due to the commitment and advocacy of Joye Frost, the Acting Director of OVC, who for over a decade has made attention to crime victims with disabilities one of her deepest concerns. In the opening keynote address, Joye spoke of her commitment, and how gratified she felt to see so many people in attendance. Without Joye, there would not have been this conference, much less the Denver conference, nor other conferences for which financial support has been provided by OVC. She has made a huge difference in supporting awareness and skills-building efforts over the years.

The conference itself was well-designed in terms of the schedule offering morning and lunch keynotes, and workshops, keeping people busy with many options throughout the day.

The highlight for me was the opportunity to reconnect with many of the people who have participated at one or more of the ten National Conferences that I organized between 1986 and 2005. Others have participated with me on the variety of projects that I have directed, including being Advisory Board members for the two films I produced with funding from OVC which were featured at the conference. Again, another hurrah for Joye who approved funding for these two training DVDs.

The first video is about the forensic interviewing skills needed when the crime victim has a cognitive and/or communication disability (VICTIMS WITH DISABILITIES: THE FORENSIC INTERVIEW). The second focuses on how to conduct the first response to such crimes, entitled, VICTIMS WITH DISABILITIES: MULTIDISCIPLINARY, COLLABORATIVE FIRST RESPONSE. These videos are free for the asking from OVC, and come with a guidebook for training others.

Even having only small amounts of time for a quick hug and brief interchange with my colleagues, for me this re-connection opportunity really is the best part of the conference. Next is meeting new people who are excited and engaged in similar work in their communities.

Simultaneous to the workshop presentations, a film-screening program was held where the two films mentioned above were shown several times, as well as other videos on related topics.

During the initial plenary session, Joye spoke of the commitment of the Department of Justice to address the needs of crime victims with disabilities. She mentioned an essential project being funded at $1.5 million to the Bureau of Justice Statistics for a three-year grant to create a data collection system focused exclusively on this population. That is great, and we will be watching for the results.

The speaker for the opening conference was Ollie Cantos, J.D., known and respected by many for his advocacy and passion to help crime victims with disabilities. He works at the U.S. Department of Justice, and over the years in different roles there, has consistently maintained a commitment to crime victims with disabilities while doing other work related to the ADA and employment of youth with disabilities. He gave an inspiring speech, a great way to open the conference!

As to the content and quality of the conference, many of the presenters are individuals who have made presentations at conferences of related topics, the Denver conference, or the National Conference s which were co-sponsored by the Arc of Riverside County. They do their work daily in their own communities and speak from personal experience. The conference offered presentations on foundational information for people new to the issues as well as advanced workshops focusing on skill building for those already familiar with the basics. There were seven categories which made workshop selection easier for those following “tracks” to feed their interests in particular areas.

On the last day of the conference, it was announced that there were no plans for funding of future conferences on this topic. Although this may change, at present no plans are in the works. Yet I am sure that due to the two conferences OVC funded, the increased awareness of the problems and enhanced the skills of responders and others who attended this and prior conferences will remain.

The final keynote address was given by Sharon D’Eusanio. She described how her life changed when she became a victim of crime, how becoming blind in that moment was “the least” of her worries, but most of her concerns focused on being able to get back to her life as the parent of three young children, and how she would manage life as a single parent. Her boys are now grown, and her wonderful husband of many years, Ray, is also her support person as they travel together to conferences and other meetings, to help guide victim responders in paying attention to the needs not only of the new disability but in particular having been a victim of a crime.

I believe the best presentation at the conference was that of Mary Lynn and Tammy Rattey. The planning committee had asked if I could contact the Rattey family to make this presentation. I had asked them to make a presentation in 2004 in Boston where I had created a one-day conference on abuse in the lives of individuals with developmental disabilities, in tandem with the annual conference of The Arc of the United States. Nancy Alterio and Jenny Edwards of the Boston-based Massachusetts Disabled Persons Protection Commission worked with me to create an amazing one-day affair that was videotaped. In addition to the Rattey family, they had invited local prosecutors, primarily Elizabeth Scheibel who was the brains and motivation behind the development of DPCC. The Rattey family presentation was the hit of the Boston conference, and we hoped the same for the Orlando Conference. And, I believe it was.

As Mary, Tammy’s mother, told the story of Tammy’s victimization, and not only what happened to Tammy but how the entire family was affected in every way by this crime. Mary was amazing, providing details of the family’s travails in the criminal and civil courts, in healing, in learning more about abuse of individuals with disabilities than they had ever imagined, and in making a lifelong commitment to helping others who find themselves faced with this tragedy.

Tammy completed the presentation by making her own statement about the rape, which occurred just about 13 years ago. Amazingly, she said, “I am happy now. I have a boyfriend. I want to help other people know that they can heal. It has been a lot of work. This tore my life apart. But by telling my story, I hope I can help other people know that if they are raped, they can get help and put their lives back together. I did and so can you.” This is really not a direct quote, but gives the gist of her speech.

She and her mother, Mary, got an immediate and long standing ovation. Tammy took her bows. Many people came up to them, wanting to say how much they were touched by their bravery in the midst of the tragedy as well as in coming to this conference to share their story. Several people came up to Tammy to tell her that they also had been raped, and were helped by Tammy’s speech. There wasn’t, I don’t think, a dry eye in the place.

It is for families like the Ratteys that I do this work. And, I hope, that there will be more conferences, meetings, gatherings, both in person and online, in which inspiration such as that of the Ratteys can be shared, hope be instilled, and healing occur. I am grateful to the conference organizers who asked me to help them bring the Ratteys to Orlando and help host their presentation by introducing them at the Keynote. There is much to learn, much to do to incorporate what has been learned at personal, community and agency levels.

I am hoping that many who attended the conference will continue their interest in learning more and in creating and maintaining connections from the conference, by joining the listserv of the Disability and Abuse Project. It is the best way to get quick help, support, ideas, and a sense of having someone available who understands your needs. We will be contacting those who attended the conference to invite them to keep up on the information they learned at Orlando conference, 24/7, 365 days a year and the connections they made with others attending the conference. We are here to support ongoing collaboration, communication and support.

So, I’ll end this with my appreciation again to OVC for funding the conference, NCVC for producing such a successful event, those who attended for their participation, and in particular, Mary Lynn and Tammy Rattey for their courage in providing information that I am sure will help reduce the risk of abuse for some, and enhance healing for others.

Dr. Nora Baladerian