Preventing abuse of people with developmental disabilities

Many times I have seen articles or presentations with this or a similar title. When I first started to see this slogan being used by professionals and academics, I expected that the contents of the article or presentation would tell me how these tragedies– atrocities–could be prevented.

I discovered that the common meaning of the word “prevention” was not what the author or speaker meant. The usual contents of the presentations included a description of the incidence and prevalence of the problem, then a discussion of activities occurring after the fact.

What I want to do here is to discuss what can be done prior to an incident of abuse occurring. I have not promoted or encouraged the use of the term “prevention” for this aspect of abuse education.

About 26 years ago, I coined the term “risk reduction” to describe activities or actions one could do to reduce the risk of abuse. I believe this is a better alternative to “prevention” because I do not believe that abuse will ever leave the face of this earth. If it does, great, but meanwhile, what can each individual with a disability and their family members do to reduce the risk that abuse will take place?

Around the same time I started using the term “risk reduction,” I had been treating a family – husband and wife and her two children. Both of her children had been sexually abused by the wife’s father and brother, the children’s grandfather and uncle. They had reported this to the mother on several occasions, but she had not been willing to believe it, most likely because she had been sexually abused by them when she was a child.

One of her daughters was in the gifted programs at school while the other had a diagnosis of severe mental retardation. This daughter, Maggie, did not speak standard English, but had a language of her own that only her sister, Sarah, understood. I provided therapy to the two girls, as well as to the family to help them cope with this family tragedy.

We established new rules for the family, to protect the children from further contact with the perpetrators. As difficult as this was, both parents were committed to their children’s safety over and above the strained relationships that emerged. It is interesting that many family members in such circumstances prefer everything to appear “normal” when family gatherings occur, and ignore the obvious dangers such may present physically, and will surely present psychologically. This family, however, agreed that there would be no contact of the children with the grandfather and uncle until the children were 18 years of age, at a minimum. This no-contact agreement helped the children feel very supported by their parents, and gave them plenty of time to heal.

We did face the obvious problem, however, that according to statistics, the chances that Maggie might again be sexually assaulted or otherwise abused were extremely high. I felt that before terminating therapy, we should make a plan to help reduce either the probability of another assault being completed or ameliorating the outcome by helping Maggie have a plan of action in case she was victimized again.

First, we had to discuss how it was that there was opportunity for the abuse to occur. We discussed who is most likely to abuse, agreeing that it would be someone known to Maggie and/or the other family members, and who had a position of authority. We discussed how to recognize any signs that someone was doing something wrong, and helped the parents take any opportunity during their daily lives to have an open discussion on behaviors they observed, as to whether these seemed good or scary, positive or suspicious. We wanted to create an awareness of things people do and say that could signal difficulties. We also wanted to create within the family an open dialogue that could last over the lifetime. In other words, slightly changing the culture in the family dynamics to have the parents be “askable parents” of whom any question could be asked.

We developed some language cues about abuse. We also talked about the fact that perpetrators have a plan they will carry out, whereas most of us do not have a plan regarding how we carry out our daily activities.

We designed a plan to carry out in case Maggie was abused again. Because Sarah was able to interpret for her, the option to have Sarah help out was put into the plan. However, what if Sarah were not home or available when Maggie needed to tell her parent something? Using her verbal and behavioral skills, we designed a series of cueing options that she could use. These were practiced and honed as time passed.

We also had to acknowledge that if there were an attempt to assault Maggie, most likely she would not be able to get away…as is the case in most attempts we are told. What could we recommend?

I pointed out that there are only three time periods for which a plan could be designed: before, during, and after an assault. The above describes in part the “before” part of the effort. What to do during an assault? I taught her that many sexual assault victims cannot get away. But what she could do is become a human video recorder and try to focus on everything that could be recorded with her five senses. Also for her to repeat her motto as things occurred, “my power is after, my power is after.” (She also could have said “my power is now and my power is after,” or some variation that she and her family preferred.  The power of “now” would be to observe and remember details.)  Finally, for her to agree to any promise the perpetrator wanted to extract from her, such as “don’t tell anyone.” Such promises are to be made only to remain safe, but are to be broken as soon as safety is reached. So this is the “during” part.

What about after? After a sexual assault, she was to tell her mother immediately, using the communication process developed within the family. That was her part. On the part of the parents, they had a role as well. Their role was to listen, stay calm, then take action as soon as practicable such as calling the police. Further, if the assault were sexual, to make sure Maggie did not change her clothes, shower, or wash in any way until after a medical exam was completed. This was obviously a complete change in how the first assaults were handled. The family felt empowered with this plan. Maggie felt empowered.

Then they were given an instruction to practice this plan monthly…much like earthquake, hurricane, or other natural disaster practices are conducted. In part, to ensure that the skills were built up, strengthened and thus usable in time of need and in part to make sure that awareness of the dangers present continued, but were not a focus of daily life. The idea is not to live in fear, but in the strength of practical plans that are employable when needed.

The family then was discharged from treatment. The girls were feeling much better as a result of the therapy, and the entire family felt much better having addressed the problems that had brought them to therapy, and having a plan for the future that was realistic.

More than seven years later, I heard from the mother. She told me that earlier in the week, Maggie had been sexually assaulted by a new bus driver for her school. He had changed the routing, so that Maggie was the last child to be dropped off. After he delivered her to her home, she used her now well-honed communication skills to alert her mother to what had just happened. In turn, the mother used her practiced skills to listen, stay calm and take action. She called the school and the police.

When the bus driver returned to school, the police were waiting for him and arrested him. Maggie was elated that their plan worked so well. And, she had repeated her motto during the assault, as well as recalled much of what had occurred. Her mother had responded as planned, by listening, believing, staying calm and taking the appropriate actions. The family of course rallied around Maggie.

I asked if Maggie wanted to come in for therapy. The mother said, “Oh, no. Maggie wanted me to call you to tell you that the plan worked. She is proud of herself for how well she did when the assault happened. She used her language cueing and with me now understanding, it worked great. Maggie is so proud of herself. She understands that the assault was not about her as a person, just an easy target for the bad man. Instead of traumatized she is feeling empowered.”

I had not anticipated that having a viable plan would lessen a victim’s need for therapy, but I learned from Maggie that her planning and practicing created an empowerment that affected not only her well-being, but ability to be a good witness to the crime.

As I see it, there are only two kinds of people that must be included in any risk reduction plan: children or adults with disabilities, and those who help them. And, there are only three time periods to be addressed: before, during and after an assault.

However, each new “after” informs anew the next “before.” More is learned about oneself as a survivor, about perpetrators, and about improving planning.

This Risk Reduction plan has been developed now many times into what I have called an IRP, an Individual Response Plan. It follows all of the precepts of the PODER model described in the my guidebook. “Risk Reduction: A Guide for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities and their Families and Careproviders.”

This model works well for individuals with and without disabilities. It works well, because now there is a plan, one which works. So now, it is not only the perpetrator who has a plan…so do families including individuals with disabilities.

Penn state report: keeping the focus on the victims

The adult men who were the child sexual abuse victims in this now renowned case, receive little honor as the heroes and survivors they are. Heroes for having lived with this childhood tragedy through their growing up years, and now, finally, taking the opportunity to speak out when the perpetrator has been finally brought to justice.

In the news, we hear the name of the perpetrator, but rarely are there words to honor the survivors.  This is and should be about the survivors.    These boys, known to be fifteen, but in all likelihood more than one hundred.  It is well documented that for every one child identified as the victim of a perpetrator, that perpetrator has molested at least 80 more.

Molested.  Such a soft term for the child rape these children experienced.  It is amazing how our use of words around child rape softens the blow for the reader…but not the survivor.  For the survivor it is like a slap in the face to diminish the impact of what was done.  Usually the sexual abuse takes more than one form, and the grooming process used by the perpetrator also takes many forms.  But the child…now adult…remembers it all.  The easy going nature of the perpetrator, how easily he manipulated his way into access through his behavior with the child’s parents, and the step by step invasions into the child’s space.  The slow, methodical emotional and psychological, then physical, closeness.  The mental traps that were laid and carefully set, that cause the child to feel confused.  To feel loved, noticed, appreciated then used and abused and trapped.  It is so confusing…how can this seemingly generous and wonderful man do these terrible things that make me feel so awful?  Can it be real? It must be me, something about me, that causes all of this, is the usual child’s self-explanation.

Getting out of the mental trap is made easier when the child is able to tell an adult who believes him, and speaks out directly against the abuse.  When an adult says to the child, “I’m so sorry this has happened to you.  It is wrong.  He should not do that.” The relief of the child is palpable.  His unspoken thoughts are confirmed:  he is wrong.  Now I know I am right to feel the way I do.  Now I can get help to make him stop doing this to me.

When a child has a parent in whom he can trust, or any other adult who responds positively to the child, then takes the appropriate action of reporting the abuse to the authorities, the child’s life journey is changed.  He is not alone.  He no longer feels that he has contributed to this chain of events.  He begins to understand that yes, indeed, adults are not all good to children even…especially when they blatantly pretend to be one of the best in the  community.

When the authorities do what they should, and properly investigate, believe the child, and file the case for prosecution, the child and his family feel vindicated, validated and valued.  In most cases, there is no physical evidence of abuse on the body of the victim.  These crimes are committed in private, so there are no witnesses.  Often there is no physical injury. When the child can cite dates and times, and when a parent or other careprovider can validate that the child was with the perpetrator during those times, that helps the investigation.  Most often the perpetrator will not admit to the crimes.  So the case rests on a he said – he said foundation.  In the Penn State case, it was the testimony of the victims that convinced the jury of the crimes committed by the perpetrator.  There was no physical evidence, I do not believe.  One person’s word against another.  What was revealed, however, in this multivictim case, was  pattern of behavior on the part of the perpetrator.  That was what convinced the jury, I’m sure.

Imagine the same scenario, however, when it is just one boy speaking out against a perpetrator.  And that perpetrator is the boy’s father, and that father is a well known and highly respected professional in the local, or even state or national community.  When that boy reveals the abuse, the case may not go so well.  Or when it is several boys but it is not a high profile case.  Or when, the father is so highly esteemed that the investigators cannot believe that he would do such a thing and decide not to file the case with the prosecutor.

What about boys with disabilities such as intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, autism, or other disabilities that affect cognitive and/or communication skills?  In these cases, too often the investigators equate mental ability or verbal ability with credibility for reasons I am still trying to figure out.  They more often than not, discredit the report of the boy and defend the poor maligned perpetrator.

Having a disability, particularly one that effects cognitive and/or communication skills, automatically demeans their viability as a witness in the eyes of the untrained responder.  And, unfortunately, most responders do not have training in understanding children and adults with these disabilities…or any other, I might add.

Thus, children with disabilities, who are first abused at rates much higher than generic children, face additional barriers to getting help and protection when they report the abuse they are experiencing.

It is time to pay attention to the survivors of abuse.  To listen to advice they have for those who could have and should have helped them.

It is also time for each person to take responsibility in their own lives or jobs for unpleasant tasks.  In the case of Penn State, it appears that the janitors did not want to report what they had observed with their own eyes, for fear of losing their jobs.  The executives in charge of the school did not want to help the children they knew to be victims of their employee, for reasons we can only imagine.  We do not know why they failed the children in favor of their adult employee.  But we know they failed.

The lessons of the Freeh report on the Penn State child sexual abuse scandal will hopefully reach not only those with a legal responsibility to report abuse when it comes to their attention, but also others who learn of abuse or suspected abuse, will take action to support the victim.  It is time.

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.

How We Can Benefit From a Survey on Abuse and Disability

by Nora J. Baladerian, Ph.D. and Jim Stream

In 1962, Dr. C. Henry Kempe published an article on  “Battered Child Syndrome” in the Journal of the American Medical Association  (JAMA), discussing his findings of children brought into the emergency rooms. He  took X-rays of broken bones and discovered many old fractures. He showed a  pattern of injuries that was incontrovertible evidence of child physical abuse.

Thus began the child abuse movement with its focus on  response, research and prevention. Identification of other types of child abuse  followed, including: emotional, verbal, sexual, and neglect in the physical and  emotional realms. Hundreds of thousands of research projects have been conducted  studying myriad aspects of child abuse.

One would hope that the same interest in child abuse  would expand into investigation of the specialized area of children with disabilities. That has not happened.

Only two federally-funded studies on the incidence of  child abuse of children with disabilities have been conducted to date. The first  was congressionally mandated with the findings published in 1991. The Westat  research group found that children with disabilities were abused at 1.7 times  the rate of generic children. The research team reviewed the records of 36 Child Protective Services agencies across the nation.

While their findings were based upon these records, we believe their findings were flawed because these agencies did not  systematically record whether or not a child had a disability. This changed only  when a child began school and it was easier to document a disability. The authors concluded that most children with disabilities are unlikely to  experience abuse until age 5. If this data is as flawed as it seems, flawed conclusions can result

The silver lining of this effort was it showed that  the federal government considered people with disabilities important and it  showed something that many of us knew: children with disabilities are abused at  a higher rate than generic children.

The second federally-funded prevalence study,  published in 2001, found that child abuse among children with disabilities was  3.4 times the rate of generic children – twice the rate found one decade  earlier. This study, conducted by researchers at Boystown, Nebraska (Sullivan and Knutson) used three different approaches to data gathering, and the findings were in line with the estimates of experienced practitioners. No similar studies have been conducted on adults with disabilities.

Other prevalence studies have found increases in abuse of people with disabilities but this data is extremely difficult to collect. The result is that we have no current and reliable data on the prevalence of abuse of people with disabilities and this situation isn’t likely to changc any time soon.

The National Survey on Abuse of People with Disabilities, conducted by The Arc of Riverside County and the Disability and Abuse Project, seeks to expand the information currently available on the life experience of individuals where abuse and disability intersect.

This is not a prevalence study but a survey that asks various groups to detail their experience with abuse. We want to know whether they have experienced abuse (a survey question for people with disabilities and/or their family members), the type of abuse experienced, who perpetrated it, whether or not it was reported, what happened when it was reported and many other issues that may reveal ways to improve the status quo.

Despite all the studies, regulations, laws and other measures to combat abuse of people with disabilities, we have difficulty seeing any improvement in the way abuse is handled over the last few decades.

We are seeking survey responses from individuals with disabilities, their family members, advocates, representatives, teachers, therapists, forensic interviewers, law enforcement officers, attorneys (prosecutors, defense and other attorneys), judges, probation officers, and anyone whose lives or professions bring them into contact with individuals with disabilities.

We encourage you to help us spread the link to this survey throughout the Internet via websites, Facebook pages, emails, online communities and by any other means. One of the wonderful benefits of social media is its reach and that it allows us to make contacts with large numbers of people with the same interests and issues that even a few years ago were much more difficult. We plan to use this aggregate data that identifies no single individual to move us forward in our thinking and our strategies for combatting a problem that receives considerable attention but lacks meaningful positive change.

Thanks in advance for your participation.  

(To take the survey, click here.)

Dr. Nora J. Baladerian is a clinical psychologist and Director of the Disability and Abuse Project of Spectrum Institute. Jim Stream is the Executive Director of The Arc of Riverside County.

We Should Protest Unsafe Hiring Practices in California’s Developmental Centers

No wonder abuse is rampant in the Developmental Centers operated by the State of California. As has been in the news recently, hundreds of cases of abuse, including murder of the residents, have gone without much of a ripple, including not much of a law enforcement response.

Reports indicate that the most recent murder involved Van Ingraham, a 29 year old man with Autism whose mangled body was “found” by staff. Staff did not report what they saw to the police, licensing or the Department of Developmental Services (DDS). They reported to their supervisors.

Apparently, the supervisors reported, again, not to the local law enforcement officials but to their internal security officials. These are individuals who have no law enforcement training, no investigative training, and are simply assigned to this duty. Thus, in the case of Van Ingraham, his murder–called a “suspicious death” by DDS–was reported five days after he died.

It is well known that for any crime, time is of the essence in beginning an investigation. After five days it is likely that evidence could have disappeared, degraded or something. Records by that time could have been altered or removed. Any video tape that may have existed and helped identify the perpetrator(s) could have been discarded, destroyed or altered.

A state legislative panel looked into the Ingraham case, and the larger issue of negligent or nonexistent investigations by agency investigators after patient advocates expressed outrage over a longstanding pattern of malfeasance.

A news story said: “After nearly a decade of scathing audits and complaints about the internal police department, lawmakers at the hearing were demanding action. The state promised to implement reforms within the next three months.”

A news article published in November shows that the Department of Developmental Services is not the only state agency that needs major reform in handling cases of abuse of people with developmental disabilities.  The article appeared in our newsfeed having been published on November 14, 2011. In part, the article revealed that the State Personnel Board reinstated two individuals with confirmed crimes against vulnerable adults.

The article stated:

“When thousands of dollars belonging to elderly residents of a veterans home went missing, police set out to catch the thief. A video camera they hid showed nurse’s aide Linda Riccitelli creeping into a 93-year-old man’s room and sticking her hand in a dresser drawer stashed with bait money. Investigators confirmed the cash was gone and the video showed that no one else had opened the drawer.

“Prosecutors charged Riccitelli with burglary, and the Department of Veterans Affairs fired her. To most, it seemed like an open-and-shut case. But a little-known state agency that rules on employee discipline saw things differently. It ordered Riccitelli re-hired, with three years’ back pay because, they said, the evidence was “circumstantial.”

It added:

“The board also ordered psychiatric technician Gregory Powell back to work at the Sonoma Developmental Center after he had been fired for hitting a profoundly disturbed patient so hard with a shoe that police found welts matching the pattern of the sole three hours later.

 “After the patient refused Powell’s repeated order to put his shoes on, a psychologist said she saw Powell smacking the patient with a shoe as he cowered on a couch. Powell said the seated patient had attacked him. He denied hitting the man with the shoe. More than three years later, in October 2009, the board sided with Powell, discounting the police report and arguing the psychologist had been new at the time and wasn’t familiar with the patient’s ‘aggressive proclivities.’

“The Department of Developmental Services filed unsuccessful appeals that kept him away from the facility until August of this year, Powell said in an interview Tuesday.

“Then, in late September, another co-worker accused him of neglect for leaving a medication cart unlocked and a patient without her oxygen, Powell said. Investigators found no wrongdoing, Powell said, but he has decided to resign and take a job in the state prison system instead.”

It is unbelievable that the State Personnel Board sides with criminals rather than protecting the well-being and safety of vulnerable adults. I have written to them about this, but have received no reply. I think I will send my letter again. And again.

I want two things. I want to have these two decisions reversed, and these criminal State employees barred from further work with vulnerable adults. Second, I would like some kind of policy for the Board that would ensure that similar decisions are not made in the future.

I also want the State Personnel Board to revise their tendency to ascribe violent behavior to individuals with disabilities but not to known violent staff members! Reread the sentence above, “Powell said the seated patient had attacked him. He denied hitting the man with the shoe. More than three years later, in October 2009, the board sided with Powell, discounting the police report and arguing the psychologist had been new at the time and wasn’t familiar with the patient’s “aggressive proclivities.” SO, THE PATIENT HAS AGGRESSIVE TENDENCIES….SO DID THE STAFF, WHO WAS ENGAGING IN THOSE TENDENCIES, NOT THE PATIENT. PAY ATTENTION! Also the Board used the excuse that the psychologist was new, to demean his/her assessment of the violence of the staff member.

It is unbelievable that the State Personnel Board advocates for criminals against the well-being and safety of vulnerable adults.

Please join me in writing a letter of protest to the State Personnel Board, for siding with and supporting known criminal offenders to get their jobs back and victimize vulnerable children, adults and elders. Make sure you mention that you heard about this either through your own news source or through the Disability and Abuse Project. Let us know if you hear back from Ms. Ambrose.

Address your letters to:
State Personnel Board
801 Capitol Mall
Sacramento, CA 95814
ATTN: Suzanne Ambrose. Executive Officer

Returning from Huntsville’s 28th National Symposium on Child Abuse

Today is Thursday, March 22, 2012, the last day of the 3-day conference. As usual, it was packed to the brim with excellent speakers, exhibits, participants, and an atmosphere of professional respect.

Lori Brown and I co-presented two 3-hour seminars: The first on Forensic Interviewing of children with disabilities and the second the First Responder’s Skills when arriving on the scene to a child abuse call. Both sessions went very well, but I felt we had much more material to present than time to do it in!

Yet, we were able to engage in some very important discussions at both presentations, show Lori’s DVD’s of forensic interviews she has recently completed (with the proper confidentiality agreements signed by the participants), show a segment of the DVD’s produced by the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) for law enforcement, child protective services and prosecutors on the topics, as well as guide the training using the power point presentations.

The audiences were relatively small…but passionate. We did engage in some discussion that the importance of the topic is great, but recognition of it importance even here at this conference, is not reflected in large audiences. There were several rooms filled with several hundred people, and ours was about 40 for the presentation on Forensic Interviewing and 15 for First Responders. However, this compares favorably to 20 years ago when there were consistently about 5-10. Interest has doubled!

Much thanks to Marilyn Grundy, who is also a Consultant on this Disability and Abuse Project, for always inviting me to share my knowledge and information at this conference. I must say that co-presenting with Lori Brown was fantastic, as she is a law enforcement officer as well as a trained Forensic Interviewer and a trainer for the Finding Words curriculum in Georgia and nationally. She is so knowledgeable, and easy to work with, and makes a huge difference in the richness of the presentation.

Most of those present at the seminars signed up to join the Listserv, and were excited about all of the project activities including the newsfeed, but mostly the ability to stay in touch with one another as well as all of the experts and expertise among our Listserv members.

I encourage you to visit the website for the conference, to take a look at the workshops that were presented, and plan to attend next year. http://www.nationalcac.org/national-conferences/symposium.html

Returning to Huntsville to Share and Learn about Child Abuse

Today is Sunday March 18, 2012 and I am flying from Los Angeles, CA to Huntsville, Alabama to attend the 28th National Symposium on Child Abuse, sponsored by the National Child Advocacy Center.

This conference typically addresses the most important aspects of child abuse, and brings to Huntsville the child abuse experts from around the country. Thus, it is a joy to come to share my knowledge and experience, as well as to learn about the latest developments from my colleagues.

This year, I will be co-presenting two three-hour seminars with Lori Brown. The first on Forensic Interviewing of children with disabilities and the second the First Responder’s Skills when arriving on the scene to a child abuse call.

I first co-presented with Lori last December at the 2nd National Conference on Crime Victims with Disabilities presented by NCVC (The National Center for Victims of Crime) and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime (OVC).  Lori is the Director of Forensic Services, Crimes Against Children Unit, Oconee County Sheriff’s Office, in Watkinsville, Georgia.  She specializes in interviews of children with developmental disabilities or other special needs.

I knew that I had been participating at this conference for many years, but when I checked on my curriculum vitae I learned that I first attended it in 1991. It is amazing at how much time has passed since I first went to Huntsville.

The conference is coordinated by Marilyn Grundy, who is also one of our Consultants on the Disability and Abuse Project! She has always enthusiastically supported workshops on children with disabilities for this Conference. I can honestly say that she is the ONLY conference coordinator to consistently reach out to make sure this population of kids is the focus of a workshop at “Sympo.”

Even though this conference is huge, the presenters are carefully screened. People who have been advocating for children for decades are speakers, including Cordelia Anderson, Julie Kenniston, and Victor Vieth, among others.

There is a significant law enforcement presence and, as times have changed, so have their presentations. Over the last several years there have been more presentations from law enforcement personnel on internet solicitation of children, and dangers of internet, social networks (such as My Space and Facebook), where children have become victims.

I will write another blog about the Symposium when I return home. Rekindling old friendships, making new friends and connections, and enjoying the atmosphere of comraderie and advocates-in-arms is always uplifting.

Many thanks and much appreciation go to Marilyn Grundy for working so hard to make it all happen, and happen so well.

Words matter in how we think and talk about sexual assault

A recent article posted on our newsfeed caused me to question the way the media portrays the crime of sexual assault. The article was titled “Teacher aide intended to commit sex crime with student, FBI says.” It states that he was arrested for “allegedly contacting a student with the intention of committing a sexual offense,” characterizing such assaults as “bad choices” and “sex crimes.”

Each of these terms brings into the reader’s mind a different level of victimization. The range from “bad choices” to sex crimes” is huge. In this case, the perpetrator used the internet and in-person contact in the commission of his crimes. What exactly did he do? We do not know.

In some cases, it appears that the press demeans or lessens the importance of the crime, for example referring to a sex crime as a “bad choice.” In today’s rampant discussions of obesity, “bad choices” is a frequent term. Even in other crimes, such as Lindsey Lohan’s violations related to drug use, the term “bad choices” has been used.

To me, raping someone is certainly a “bad choice,” but goes far beyond that. Why can’t the press agree on how to refer to a crime of rape, exposure, attempted rape, sodomy, etc? Even some terms seem so “light” for crimes that leave lasting emotional scars, such as, for example, “touching” and “fondling.” Fondling even sounds kind of nice, except when use in legal terms.

As a society, we do not handle information about sexual assault very well.  Have you noticed that during the Kobe Bryant trial, the term “victim” and “alleged victim” turned into “accuser,” and that term has stuck, to refer to sex crime victims?  What a clever yet devious way to persuade readers that most likely the perpetrator is innocent, and indeed the victim of a mean “accuser.” Now the perpetrator is called “the accused.” That is so much nicer than “suspect.”

The language we use when referring to the crime itself as well as the victim and the suspect, must be re-examined. We must identify and use terms that do not influence the reader one way or the other, but rather plainly state the facts as they are known. I would love to change the terms used in the teacher’s aide article to, “sex crime,” “sexual assault,” “victim” and “suspect.”

Residential Care Facilities Need Abuse Risk-Reduction Plans

I read an Associated Press story the other day which reminded me of the need for residential care facilities to adopt pro-active measures to reduce the risk of abuse of persons in their care.

The AP story reported that a man in Indiana was facing criminal charges for fondling a resident while the man was visiting his own mother at a mental health facility. The victim told police that the same man had done something similar on prior occasions.

This brief article focuses on the exploitative type of abuse, common in large residential facilities, where identification of the perpetrator is often a near impossibility. Fortunately for the victim in this case, she was able to identify the perpetrator. This means to me that she is able to speak, and further was able to have key staff respond to her report in the appropriate manner that led to an arrest and charges of two counts of sexual battery. If the police continue their investigation and dig deeper into the matter, there may be additional charges filed later on, hopefully resulting in a plea of guilty or in vigorous prosecution.

Perpetrators of sexual crimes in large licensed residential and health facilities most often go unidentified.

I remember a case in the early 1980’s where a 99-bed facility found that one of their female residents was seven months pregnant. Dr. Carol Berkowitz at Harbor General Hospital/UCLA conducted the medical exams of all of the residents and found that over 70% had Chlamydia and a large number also had gonorrhea. The facility director asked me to work with the administrative staff to help identify the perpetrator.

Several of the staff were feeling terrible, as they were not the perpetrator but, because they were male, they were looked at suspiciously by nearly everyone. Should all male staff be required to submit to DNA testing? Who was most likely to have been the perpetrator? Or perpetrators?

I worked with the staff on the difficulties. First, who had access to the residents? How many had access? How would they have committed these acts? I led the administrative staff through an analysis of the possibilities. Male administrative staff was first on the list! Of course, all denied any such conduct on their part.

We discussed all staff: professional full time staff, professional part time staff, paraprofessional staff, volunteers, outside vendors for transportation, day programs, physical therapy, medical visits, speech therapists, other visiting professionals such as physicians, psychiatrists, specialists, nurses. Then we thought about service providers for laundry, food, and other suppliers. We also considered visitors, like the man visiting his mother, brothers, uncles, grandparents, parents, and on and on. The number of men on the list continued to grow literally into the hundreds. Which men…or all men…should be tested?

Meanwhile community feelings of outrage were rampant. Not only that most residents now had STD’s but the pregnant young woman eventually had the baby which was made available for adoption. The facility was closed and all the residents sent to other places to live and receive medical treatment for their STD’s. But there was no mental health treatment of residents for the sexual exploitation or assault that was the way they had contracted these diseases.

This case, where the perpetrator was a visitor to another resident, is unusual. What are the protections that can be put into place to reduce the risk of assault? Many are considered too invasive, such as cameras in all areas including the patients’ bed areas and bathrooms. What about the corridors entries and exits? Would it capture what is needed? What about policies and practices that could have been implemented but were not?

In the case cited above the administration had actually reached out approximately one year before the pregnancy was discovered, to learn what protective and preventive policies and practices could be implemented, but they did not employ any of what was recommended. After the fiasco, they admitted that had they implemented the plans, it is likely that the perpetrator who caused the pregnancy would have been identified, and the rampage of sexual assaults may have been lessened, and definitely the pregnancy would have been discovered before the third trimester was complete.

So, while in this case I am glad that the perpetrator was caught, and the crime publicized, I would like to see a national outcry for better prevention policies to be written and implemented in all residential programs and facilities.