Preventing the Sexual Abuse of Adults with a Disability

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Sexual abuse of people with a disability is a crime that unfortunately is often misunderstood, undetected and ultimately overlooked by organisations. Individuals with a disability are often uniquely vulnerable to sexual and other forms of abuse and deserve both strong protection and swift action in relation to any such allegations. 

Organisations responsible for the care of people with a disability are entrusted with the tasks of fully understanding the signs of sexual abuse, dealing with disclosures, and putting in place robust procedures for prevention and action.

the issue of consent

For organisations or individuals who care for a person with a disability, it can at times be difficult to ascertain the presence or absence of consent to sexual activity, particularly where the person accused is a spouse, partner or other close companion.

Part of this uncertainty is tied to society's historical myth that people with a disability are inherently non-sexual. Yet at the other end of the spectrum is the very real potential for sexual exploitation and abuse of people with a disability. Navigating the difficult issue of consent to sexual activity in these contexts requires a nuanced approach to each individual allegation. 

The above-mentioned nuanced approach only applies to adults with a disability. When children with a disability are concerned, the standard rule applies that children under the age of consent are unable to consent.

signs of abuse

In some cases, the individual with a disability will be able to quickly and clearly articulate their complaint of sexual abuse in care. 

However, just as each person with a disability is unique, so are the types and complexities of presenting issues. This can create challenges for those seeking to prevent and/or investigate sexual abuse allegations. For example, verbal or intellectual capacity issues can reduce the ability of carers and others to absorb the gravity of a situation. 

There are some key signs however that a person with a disability might be the victim of sexual abuse. Sudden changes in behaviour, temperament or activities can often raise the alarm. This could involve exhibiting fear towards an individual, acting out sexually or becoming uncharacteristically aggressive. 

Physical signs can include restraint marks, facial bruising or blood in the genital area. There are many more signs - some quite subtle - that a person with a disability has been subjected to sexual abuse. 

It is crucial that all staff and family members are aware of these and are prepared to take swift and appropriate action to further the matter. Further, investigators require utmost sensitivity and diligence during any investigation. 

Disclosure of abuse

Unfortunately, it is both the subtle, insidious and complex nature of sexual abuse of people with a disability that can prevent or delay the disclosure of the crime in question. The person with the disability may be hampered in their attempts to disclose - either by the nature of their disability or a lack of concern shown by those around them. Staff caring for the individual must therefore be trained and supported in the key steps needed to swiftly and effectively report any suspicions of sexual abuse against vulnerable individuals.

The organisations role

Organisations that are entrusted with the care of persons with a disability have a number of distinct obligations when it comes to the prevention and reporting of sexual abuse. At the heart of these requirements lies an ethic of care that embraces the right of all individuals to live free from harm. 

This inherently includes provision of care services that respect, protect and enhance the lifestyles of people with a disability. Moving outwards from this are legislative and policy requirements for management and professionals working in the care environment, as well as health and safety constraints that protect the welfare of all involved in disability care contexts. 

Yet perhaps the most important role for organisations is the development of robust policies and procedures designed to prevent, detect and act upon complaints of sexual abuse. Training all staff, family, clients and relevant community members in the content and application of these resources is essential to the welfare of those in care environments.  

If concerns have been raised in your organisation and you would like to conduct an investigation into the allegations, contact WISE today. Alternatively if your organisation requires a safe, secure environment to report concerns or complaints, WISE has a Confidential Whistleblower Hotline (Grapevine), enabling insightful management of complaints and the ability to bring about real cultural change and reduce risk. 

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