Barriers to justice when rapists attack women with disabilities: new Australian report

“This young woman [“Caroline”] has cerebral palsy, is wheelchair bound, totally dependant on carers for her personal and daily living activities, and non-verbal. Cognitively very aware, she depends on assisted communication to enable her to communicate … Caroline was sexually assaulted by the taxi driver who picked her up from home and drove her to school …

Caroline uses a communication book to communicate, but her communication book did not have the vocabulary she needed to describe what had happened to her. Her communication book did not include words such as “penis” or “rape”, and police would not allow these words to be added after the incident, because as the police explained, in court this would be seen as leading the witness. (Excerpt from an interview with a support worker cited in Federation of Community Legal Centres, 2006, pp. 7–8).”

Suellen Murray and Anastasia Powell of the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault have just released a new report: “Sexual assault and adults with a disability enabling recognition, disclosure and a just response” [PDF].

This report starts to fill a huge gap in our knowledge of sexual violence in Australia. Although data in North America has shown that women with disabilities (WWD) are far more likely to experience sexual violence than those without, up until now there has been little or no systematic research into what is happening with WWD in Australia:

Despite being the major national data collection regarding the status and experiences of adults with a disability, the ABS Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers, does not invite participants to report on their experiences of violence or abuse.

Similarly, the ABS (2006) Personal Safety Survey report, which specifically investigates experiences of violence, does not identify the disability status of participants, and the International Violence Against Women Survey (IVAWS) specifically excluded women with an illness or disability from the sample for the survey (Mouzos & Makkai, 2004).

Therefore, despite evidence that approximately 20% of Australian women, and 6% of men, will experience sexual violence in their lifetime (ABS, 2006), there is no standard national data collection that includes the experiences of sexual violence amongst adults with a disability, or more specifically, the experiences of women with a disability.

There is one smallish South Australian study showing that adults with intellectual disabilities are over ten times more likely to have been sexually assaulted.

Particular risk factors include being female or being in residential care. This report recognises the spectrum of disability and victimisation, but concentrates on women with intellectual disabilities or severe communication or psychiatric disabilities, because of their particular vulnerability and difficulty in reporting.

The authors found that women in residential care are most likely to be sexually assaulted by male residents. Staff are another key perpetrator group. Women in their homes are mostly likely to be sexually assaulted by family members and partners. Family violence and paid-carer violence have been particularly ignored in the research literature.

Barriers to disclosure are a major problem. They include:

1. Ideas about WWD being particularly asexual, undesirable, dishonest, or promiscuous.

2. Inability of victims to identify their experience as grooming and sexual assault, due to lack of protective-behaviour and sexual education. (Issues of sexual agency are also touched on in the report.)

3. Punitive institutional responses to reports, including moving the victim rather than the assaulter, or locking victims in their rooms.

4. Dependence on perpetrators can leave victims unable to disclose because their care needs will no longer be met.

5. Communication difficulty, both practical and situational, related to disability or to physical and social isolation. Family carers or residential management act as gate-keepers and decision-makers, taking the power to report out of victims’ hands. Carers and workers lack training in appropriate responses to reporting.

The “gate-keeper” problem can lead to deliberate collusion, or to concealment in the name of “discretion”. Sexual assaults tend to be labelled as “incidents” rather than crimes. Forensic investigation can be delayed to the point of uselessness. Victims are often denied support, assistance, and counselling.

Solutions to disclosure barriers and to inappropriate and abusive responses to reporting can only work if they are pervasive and society-wide. At the moment, policy frameworks and procedural guidelines are patchy, resources are inadequate, and services are uncoordinated.

The authors have a series of recommendations for future practice and research, both general and specific. They examine issues around mandatory reporting, and discuss law reform at a number of levels from support agencies through police and court procedures. You can check out the rest of the report here.

12 thoughts on “Barriers to justice when rapists attack women with disabilities: new Australian report

  1. When I was doing sexual assault survivor advocacy (basically responding when survivors presented to the Emergency Room, and being there to be the person whose only goal was to look after their needs), the very first call I responded to was a young woman with Cerebral Palsy who’d been assaulted by the driver of her medical van. Everything, EVERYTHING was harder and more complicated, from the basic physical exam (it was difficult to impossible for her to stand on the sheet as they combed for hair and fiber; she was tiny to being with, and her lower body was particularly underdeveloped, and it never occurred to the person performing the exam to try using a pediatric speculum until I shouted at him to find one) to the fact that everyone kept trying to interview either me or her mother, despite the fact that she was quite clearly and eloquently communicating about everything from the assault to the dozens of surgeries she’d had. I felt (and still feel) completely stunned by the simple things that never occurred to me until I was faced with them in that situation and the pathetic inflexibility of the procedures for collecting evidence.
    MatildaZQs last blog post..The Rock Loves Pie: Alton Brown’s "Super Apple Pie"

  2. MatildaZQ: Thanks for an insight into that aspect of reporting and investigation. This report is very positive about specialist sexual assault services themselves, without going into much detail on problems with medical/nursing staff, though it does make the following general recommendation:

    To work effectively with people with disabilities, resources may need to be allocated to ensure that services are accessible and appropriate. For example: more time may be needed to provide responses that are more slowly staged; advocates may be needed to assist people; additional resources such as specialist communication equipment or material provided in alternative formats may need to be purchased; or modifications may be required to ensure that buildings are accessible.[…]
    Professional development is needed across the service sector and criminal justice system to ensure workers are well equipped to support people with disabilities who experience sexual assault.

  3. While the statistical data is thin on the ground the anecdotal evidence of abuse communicated informally to funding organisations reveals a terrible pattern of ongoing abuse for many people with disabilities. A great many more who are living somewhat independently in the community are also at daily risk of abuse due to the low hours of supervision provided.
    A great many of those approaching governments across Australia for supported accommodation of personal care provide examples of abuse as evidence to support their applications for funding.
    The barriers to disclosure described above are very real. I worked overseas for a while with children with disabilities who were living in an orphanage – most had parents who either did not want the child or who sent the child to the orphanage to protect them from abuse.
    Most bore emotional and physical scars including one young girl who had legs that had been fused together after she had been thrown into a fire.
    Grendels last blog post..The coffee or the people

  4. :(
    (That’s all I can really think to say– this post, and Matilda’s and Grendel’s responses, make me want to cry.)

  5. You do such good work Matilda. Props to you!
    I have a 21 yo Angelmans nephew living in a CRU and 9 y o niece still living at home who is profoundly disabled but as yet no diagnosis (non verbal and cannot walk. I’m particularly worried about what happens when her mum can no longer keep her at home if that happens. I’m not sure about the nephew as he’s very big and strong but I don’t know if that’s enough.

  6. This is so sad. I never had even thought about things like this occuring until reading this post. Hopefully awareness spreads.

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