Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM)
Sexual abuse affects people with disabilities at a rate of seven times higher than those without a disability. A lack of awareness and visibility of these victims increases the severity of this widespread issue. It is important to be informed on this topic because of the legal obligations of mandatory reporting and also know the best way to respond to sexual violence.
The level of vulnerability and accessibility to their bodies leads to a higher level of abuse for individuals with disabilities. This is further complicated by communication barriers and a lack of education about healthy relationships and consent. Anyone who has access to an individuals’ home and/or body has the opportunity to take advantage of that person. As staff working with dependent adults, many believe that any sexual misconduct must be reported to the Department of Human Services (DHS) and/or the person’s guardian. This is often not the case, however. Mandatory reporting takes effect if a client reports sexual abuse/assault by a caregiver. This could be anyone in a care-taking role including, but not limited to, staff members, parents, guardians, or homecare providers. As of July 1, 2016, all dependent adult victims of sexual abuse that fall under mandatory reporting guidelines must be treated at the Regional Child Protection Center. For central Iowa, that would be Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines. It is important to note that Blank will only see dependent adults who are 21 and younger. If a dependent adult is over 21 years old, they will need to be transported to another Regional Child Protection Center. The next closest facility would be St. Luke’s Child Protection Center located in Cedar Rapids.
There are other cases in which the adult’s guardian does not necessarily need to be informed. If the client was assaulted by a stranger, peer, or acquaintance who is NOT a caregiver, this does not fall under mandatory reporter obligations. This client should be supported in seeking medical attention to treat injuries, collect evidence and receive a sexual assault exam. This can be done without permission from the guardian, as long as the client understands what they are consenting to. However, if the client would like guardians included, please follow their wishes.
Agencies across the state provide services to survivors of violence, including sexual abuse. These certified sexual assault advocates offer a variety of services, including system advocacy (medical, criminal, legal, and state); counseling and support; access to local resources; and more. Advocates have protections under Iowa Code 915.20A which mandates that communication between an advocate and a victim remains confidential. This includes any services provided, unless subpoenaed by a judge or the victim signs a Release of Information form. All advocacy services are also 100% free to the victim and any secondary victims.
Individuals with disabilities face a number of barriers coming forward about sexual violence. For someone who may be non-verbal or have limited vocalizations, a lack of access to tools for communication outside of basic needs can be restrictive. Educational programs about consent and recognizing signs of abuse aren’t always offered or made available for people with disabilities. Subsequently, this can lead to a misunderstanding that what is happening to them is abusive, especially when certain acts become normalized as part of a daily routine. This is often referred to as “grooming,” which can be accompanied by threats. A lack of understanding of their rights and limited information about the various methods of reporting, in addition to the previously mentioned barriers, inevitably forces victims into silence.
Some signs abuse has occurred may include changes in sleeping and eating habits, sudden distrust in certain people, physical injuries, STI’s, as well as changes in mood and behavior. If you believe someone has been a victim of abuse and would like assistance in supporting them we have attached resources you can use to this article.