Sexual Abuse of People With Disabilities: The Silent Pandemic

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Sexual Abuse of People With Disabilities: The Silent Pandemic

Sexual Abuse of People With Disabilities: The Silent Pandemic

Oct 15, 2020

Sexual abuse of people with disabilities has been called “the sexual assault pandemic no one talks about” by National Public Radio. People with disabilities are at a greater risk of sexual abuse than the rest of the population, yet such abuse is rarely reported. Disability abuse involving sex crimes is a significant problem plaguing society, but very few people know about it, and even fewer talk about it. Dordulian Law Group strongly believes in education as a means of combatting sexual abuse. Let’s examine the tragic circumstances of sexual abuse of the disabled in greater detail.

Sexual Abuse of People With Disabilities

The term “disability” can have a wide variety of meanings. There are many types of disabilities, however, individuals with disabilities typically face different challenges in their everyday lives and have specific needs.

Some disabilities can put people at a higher risk for sexual abuse. For example, a person who needs to be assisted with basic daily activities is often reliant upon their caretaker. Thus, the caretaker is in a position of great power which can be used to force or coerce the person with the disability into engaging in non-consensual sexual activities. Some abusers may even take away their victim’s means of communication (i.e. their phone or computer).

In many cases it can be difficult for people with disabilities to report an incident of sexual abuse, even if they desire to do so. Authorities or law enforcement may not take an accusation seriously, or have trouble believing complaints from people with disabilities. At other times, it can be too difficult for a person with a disability to communicate the abuse.

Additionally, people with more severe disabilities may not be able to comprehend what happened to them or realize that an act of abuse was in fact wrong. This speaks to the issue of consent.

Our Sexual Assault Justice Experts are here to help survivors secure justice. Contact our top-rated attorneys online or by phone for a free consultation today.

Can Someone With a Disability Give Consent?

Consent is necessary for a sexual act or encounter to be considered legal. Each party to any sexual act must obtain consent from the other party. But when one of the people engaging in sexual activity has a disability, the question of consent becomes complicated and depends on the type and severity of the individual’s disability.

Some disabilities do not prevent a person from giving consent. However, specific disabilities can make it impossible under the law for the person to technically understand what a sexual act is, or communicate whether or not they want to engage in sexual activity. These severe disabilities – whether due to physical or cognitive impairment – prevent a person from meeting the legal definition of having the ability to give consent. An experienced and dedicated Dordulian Law Group disability abuse attorney or SAJE Team (Sexual Assault Justice Experts) member can help answer any questions you may have regarding a sex crime or a survivor’s capacity to give consent.

Disability Abuse In The News

  • The NPR report cited above examined the prevalence and underreporting of sexual abuse by people with disabilities. The article explains that reporters obtained unpublished data from the Justice Department on sex crimes, which indicates that people with intellectual disabilities are the victims of sexual assault much more often than people without. In fact, disability abuse represents one of the highest rates of sexual assault within any particular group in the United States. NPR emphasizes that, despite the prevalence of this type of sexual abuse, it is actually talked about the least.
  • A March 8, 2020 article published by the New York Times reported that a 14-year-old girl filed a lawsuit against her school district after being sexually abused for several consecutive days by other students on the school bus. She was raped by the other students and the driver did nothing to stop it. “The girl and her family filed the suit in federal court against the Fulton County School District in Georgia on March 3 for failing to protect her, and for discrimination,” according to the Times.
  • In a recent lawsuit out of Utah, a disabled student and her family sued a private school for mishandling a 2017 sexual assault allegation. The student, Tabitha Bell, said “she froze in fear when the boy who had been her friend began assaulting her,” a response reported by many sexual assault victims. Bell said her disability makes her largely unable to physically fight back against an abuser. She has a rare form of muscular dystrophy that affects her strength and balance, making it harder for her to do things like walk without assistance. To “solve the problem,” administrators at the school held a meeting with the rest of her class where they shared details of the off-campus allegations. Administrators would not help the 17-year-old girl enforce a protective order against her classmate. The student and family are seeking $10 million in damages.

Statistics and Prevalence

People with disabilities have one of the highest rates of sexual assault in the United States. Furthermore, we rarely talk about how sexual abuse affects this population. It is important to note that statistics and data regarding sexual abuse of people with disabilities vary from source-to-source because of the low reporting rate (as well as the multiple definitions which exist to help determine what it means to have a “disability”). Nonetheless, here are some shocking statistics that demonstrate a need for social and legal change:

  • Women with disabilities are three times as likely to be physically abused or assaulted.
  • The University of Michigan estimated that approximately 90% of all people with developmental disabilities experience sexual assault at some point in life.
  • The Justice Department’s data show that people with intellectual disabilities are seven times more likely to be the victim of sex crimes than people without disabilities.
  • A 2005 survey of people with disabilities reported that 60% of the people had been subjected to some form of unwanted sexual activity. Tragically, nearly half of the 60% did not report their assault.
  • 83% of women with disabilities will be sexually assaulted in their lives.
  • Only 3% of sex crimes involving people with developmental disabilities are ever reported.
  • Women with a disability are far more likely to have a history of undesired sex with an intimate partner: 19.7% of women with a disability compared to 8.2% of women without a disability.
  • Around 80% of women and 30% of men with developmental disabilities have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and half of those women have been assaulted more than ten times.

Helpful Resources for Disabled Survivors of Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse of people with disabilities-and sexual abuse in general-can have extremely harmful effects on survivors. Seeking help and support is vital for anyone who has suffered from sexual abuse. Here are some recommendations and support services for survivors of sexual abuse:

  • If you know someone who is experiencing sexual abuse-or who you think may be experiencing abuse-you can report it by calling 911 or contacting your local police station. And if the person has a disability, you can contact the Department of Human Services or the Department of Social Services.
  • Survivors or concerned friends or family can also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a local sexual assault service provider.
  • RAINN has an anonymous online chat service at where survivors can speak with trained support specialists.

Taking Legal Action Following Disability Abuse

Although it has been an unjustly slow process, more and more sexual abuse survivors with disabilities are finally starting to see justice served on their behalf in the legal system. Sexual predators are now being prosecuted for their crimes, and survivors are bringing suits in civil court to obtain compensation for the harm and trauma they have endured.

Although a perpetrator of sexual abuse is sometimes criminally prosecuted, these prosecutions are often focused on punishing the perpetrator rather than compensating the survivor. In California, sexual abuse survivors with disabilities can bring a lawsuit in civil court and seek justice on their own terms.

Sexual abuse can be a civil legal claim under California Civil Code Section 1708.5. California law refers to sexual abuse (and assault) as “sexual battery,” which occurs when the perpetrator engages in non-consensual, harmful, or offensive sexual contact, or when the victim is placed in imminent fear of such contact.

For survivors with advanced physical or cognitive disabilities, it is often incumbent on family or friends to pursue justice on the survivor’s behalf. Remaining vigilant and monitoring for potential sexual abuse of people with disabilities is critical to ensuring that their rights are protected, and that justice is pursued in the event of an act of abuse. If you ever have questions or suspect a possible disability abuse crime, contact a DLG sex crime attorney today.

Compensation for Sexual Abuse Survivors With Disabilities

A survivor of sexual abuse (or a member of the survivor’s family) can sue for money damages for various types of harm suffered as a result of the abuse. This means that a survivor could receive compensation for past and future psychological services, past and future medical bills, lost wages at work, pain and suffering, loss of companionship, etc. Additionally, courts sometimes award survivors of sexual abuse punitive damages. Punitive damages are in addition to compensatory damages, and are meant to serve the purpose of punishing the perpetrator and deterring others from committing future acts of abuse.

How Long After the Abuse Can Survivors File a Lawsuit?

The statute of limitations or time limit to file a civil lawsuit in California for sexual abuse varies depending the date the abuse occurred, and whether the survivor was a child or an adult. New laws have been passed that can affect your claim and whether or not you are able to file a lawsuit. The information below attempts to give an overview of how certain statutes of limitations can impact different survivors within different age groups, but the laws are complex and can be difficult to decipher. If you have questions or need further clarification, please do not hesitate to contact a top-rated Los Angeles sexual abuse lawyer at DLG at any time by calling 800-880-7777.

According to Section 340.16 of California’s Code of Civil Procedure, an adult survivor of sexual abuse must file his or her lawsuit within 10 years from the date of the last abusive act or attempted act, or within three years from the date the survivor discovered or reasonably should have discovered that his or her injury or illness (in most cases a psychological illness, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD) resulted from the abuse. However, the aforementioned 10-year statute of limitations is part of a new law, California AB 1619, and only applies to adult sex abuse crimes occurring after January 1, 2019. If a survivor was assaulted as an adult before January 1, 2019, then he or she is bound to the previous two-year statute of limitations that applies to all personal injury claims, and therefore only has two years from the date of the act to bring a civil lawsuit. That said, if the survivor was a child at the time of the assault, the statute of limitations is different.

For a limited period of time, survivors of childhood sexual abuse are able to file a lawsuit regardless of when the crime occurred. Under AB 218, a new law passed by the California legislature, the statute of limitations on child sex crimes is waived under a three-year “lookback window” option. Under the lookback window, which began on January 1, 2020 and expires January 1, 2023, any survivor of childhood sexual abuse is eligible to file a lawsuit seeking financial compensation for damages. The law has specific stipulations, however, and after the window closes the standard statute of limitations resumes. For survivors of childhood sexual abuse, this means that they will have until their 40th birthday to file a claim, provided they were under 26 on January 1, 2020 (AB 218 took effect on January 1, 2020, extending the maximum age to file a claim from 26 to 40 – however, those who were over 26 at the time the bill took effect would not be able to take advantage of this extension).
Additionally, AB 218 has a treble (triple) damages clause in place to address the epidemic of cover-ups in child sex crimes by individual abusers and institutions. If a perpetrator (whether an individual or an institution) covered up abuse, AB 218’s treble damages clause allows the court to force those responsible parties to pay you three times the determined damages (e.g. a $5 million damages award would actually amount to $15 million under the treble damages cover-up clause). DLG pursues treble damages awards for all applicable child disability abuse cases involving cover-ups.

AB 218 also extended the statute of limitations on the discovery of a psychological illness or injury from three years to five years for child sex crime survivors, provided the discovery took place on or after January 1, 2020.

AB 218 has various aspects that can impact different survivors in different ways (and in some cases for a limited period of time). For more information on AB 218, please take a moment to view our comprehensive blog that summarizes everything you need to know.

Despite the varying statutes of limitations, it is always in the survivor’s best interest to take immediate legal action (or as soon as possible) following a sex crime. Memories fade over time and physical evidence can become damaged or lost. Acting in a timely fashion and filing a claim as soon as possible helps ensure the best possible outcome in a sexual abuse or disability abuse civil suit.

Contact our top-rated team of expert sexual abuse attorneys online or by phone today to pursue justice and secure a financial award for damages.

The Dordulian Law Group Advantage

Dordulian Law Group (DLG) is here to help bring justice to disabled survivors of sexual abuse. DLG was founded by Samuel Dordulian, a former Deputy District Attorney and sex crimes prosecutor for Los Angeles County. Mr. Dordulian, with the assistance of Moses Castillo, DLG’s Chief Investigator and a retired LAPD sex crimes detective, works tirelessly to ensure that disabled survivors of sexual abuse receive the justice they deserve. Dordulian and Castillo have a combined 50 years of legal experience and provide survivors with the type of exemplary support and representation they need and deserve. Survivors can be confident that DLG will thoroughly, professionally, and effectively investigate and litigate every detail of their case.

The attorneys at DLG are fierce advocates for people with disabilities who have survived sexual abuse. We understand that every case is unique and must be handled with great care and concern. Those who choose DLG to represent them in sexual abuse cases will have a group of devoted allies from our SAJE Team working to guarantee that all guilty parties are held accountable.

DLG can bring lawsuits against the individual perpetrators of abuse, and/or institutions that willfully and negligently allowed the abuse happen, such as schools, school districts, and care facilities. We want you to be certain that when we accept your case, justice will be served to the fullest extent of the law.

For many disabled survivors of sexual abuse-and their loved ones-the pursuit of obtaining justice and possibly finding healing can be a long and difficult journey. At DLG, we’re here to ensure that your journey ends with a fair and just resolution. Contact us today for a free consultation via 800-880-7777.

DLG’s SAJE Team members are here to answer any questions you have 24/7.

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