Special needs are the most vulnerable
Some children are more likely to be abused than other children. Certain factors may increase the vulnerability of a child to sexual abuse.
Some of these factors include having disabilities, emotional or behavioral disturbances, having been previously abused (physically, mentally, or emotionally), or being isolated from friends and family members. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, special needs students are 4.6 times more susceptible to be victims of sexual abuse due to isolated settings with adults who may take advantage of them.
Children with disabilities or special needs are the most vulnerable people because they are especially dependent on others for help. Research has shown that 60 percent of child sexual abuse is committed by persons known and trusted by the child and parents. Research indicates that 97 to 99 percent of abuse victims with developmental disabilities knew and trusted their abusers.
Why are children with disabilities more vulnerable to abuse and neglect?
Lack of awareness. Some methods of managing behavior might be seen by some people as acceptable when they are actually abusive. Negative community attitudes about disability can also contribute to abuse or neglect not being recognized, or not being believed.
Isolation. Children with disabilities and their families may be more socially isolated, reducing their support networks. Also, there are often additional emotional, physical, and financial demands on families raising a child with a disability.
Increased vulnerability. Children with disabilities might lack a good understanding of social relationships, personal boundaries, protective behaviors, sexual awareness, and/or what abuse is. Children with a physical disability may be more vulnerable to rough and intrusive personal care and may be physically unable to resist or avoid abuse. They may have increased difficulty in communicating and may even accept abusive treatment due to low understanding or self-esteem.
It’s important to keep in mind that while the Diocese of Fort Worth’s Safe Environment program is primarily directed at the protection of children and youth from sexual abuse, the Protecting God’s Children® program is comprehensive in nature and includes the protection of all God’s children, including those who are the most vulnerable.
To better protect these youth, it’s important to know some factors involved. People with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to crimes involving violence, such as physical or sexual assault because — regardless of age or gender — they are often the least able to recognize danger, to protect themselves, and/or to communicate or obtain assistance.
A disability can directly affect the capacity of individuals to protect themselves. People with developmental or psychiatric disabilities often struggle with determining when to be compliant and when to assert themselves. Consequently, they are at risk to be victimized both when they comply too easily and when they refuse to comply and suffer retaliation.
Perceived vulnerability is a factor in the selection of an individual with a developmental disability as a victim. Often offenders — particularly sexual offenders — are particularly drawn to individuals they consider to be vulnerable. One study found that 44 percent of the perpetrators made initial contact with their victims through the special services provided to people with disabilities. In addition, some offenders are themselves afflicted with a developmental disability.
Victims who have disabilities may allow themselves to be in risky situations or be victimized because life offers them few alternatives; for example, retaining an abusive caretaker because no other caretaker can be found.
We are called to protect and defend the dignity of every human person, and especially those with special challenges, special needs, or disabilities.
Richard Mathews is Director of Safe Environment for the Diocese of Fort Worth. A former prosecuting attorney, he also served as the General Counsel for the Boy Scouts of America and for Trail Life USA.