Summary: With the recent arrest of a special education teacher in West Virginia on allegations of sexual abuse, the ugly reality that special needs children are at a greater risk of abuse than the average child rears its head.  There are several reasons this happens

Last month, a special education teacher was arrested in West Virginia on suspicion that he had isolated and repeatedly touched one of his students inappropriately in an empty classroom, as well as performing multiple sexual acts on the child.  It’s disgusting when an adult in a position of trust and power abuses their position by carrying out an abuse on a child; even more so when that child is a special needs student.  What makes the difference if it’s a ‘normal’ kid as opposed to a ‘special needs’ kid in abuse cases?  This is a reasonable question, as an abuse on either is horrible; however, there are some differences.

Special needs children are easier targets for a predator than a normal child.  For a normal child, a proactive parent could teach appropriate and inappropriate touches, and what to do if an adult tries to abuse them.  A special needs child with a mental disability is much less likely to grasp such a conversation, which removes a layer of protection from the start.  Worse yet, that type of curricula are rarely offered in special education programs – and not tailored to the student’s needs when it is.  Those with physical disabilities are less able to protect themselves from a sexual predator – these facts are already though out by the predator.  They realize they have an easy path if their victim has a disability.  San Diego-based sexual abuse trial lawyer Donald Joseph Beck shares with us his perception into the obstacles that a child with special needs faces against a sexual predator:

  • Special needs children rarely self-report because they lack depth of emotional and intellectual understanding of the wrongfulness of the acts (which also makes them easier to groom), or because they lack the ability to communicate what happened to them.
  • Special needs victims are more easily intimidated by threats of harm if they disclose the abuse.
  • Those victims that are institutionalized — whether children, adults or the elderly — don’t have the supervision of family and friends which would otherwise tend to lessen the likelihood of sexual assault.  The level of supervision in foster homes, group homes, residential facilities for the adult mentally disabled is abysmal.

To expand on Beck’s insight, the amount of supervision in special education programs at public schools is inconsistent, if not lacking.  Special needs children require a substantially higher amount of safeguards and monitoring from the school district – which the schools either lack the money to put the proper monitoring measures in place, or lack the care to do so. Perhaps these considerations explain why the statistics and facts related to sexual abuse on those with special needs is so staggering:

  • Up to 67% of those with special needs have experienced sexual violence in their lifetimes.
  • Up to 79% of women with special needs have experienced sexual violence.
  • Boys with special needs are 2/3 more likely to be abused.
  • Children with disabilities are almost 3 times more likely to be abused; that number jumps up to 4.6 for children with mental disabilities.
  • Predators that prey on disabled children are often connected to the child through their disability.
  • Perpetrators operate with increased impunity when preying on special needs children; the abuses are reported less often and treated as administrative matters, not crimes – employers must play an increased critical role in ending sexual abuses on special needs children as a result.

More from Beck: the overwhelming majority of such cases are discovered by physical evidence: video, semen on clothes etc. and that typically such cases are discovered by physical evidence: video, semen on clothes etc. and not because the victim said something.  This makes sense, considering how varied disabilities can be.  For example, if the victim is mute or deaf and does try to report the abuse, it exposes criminal investigators that often lack the skill to interview the child, needing an American Sign Language interpreter; naturally, key points could be lost in translation.  The same rationale carries over into the courts.  The unfortunate reality is that special needs children who are sexually abused are less likely to receive the services and support they need to heal and to seek justice because of their disabilities.

It is worth knowing that the warning signs to identify sexual abuses are the same for special needs children as it is for unimpaired children; specifically weight changes, changes in appetite, withdrawal, and increased anxiety and/or anger.  Inherently, the specific behaviors will vary, depending on the baseline behavior of the child, but noticing the differences in behavior and knowing the warning signs can make the difference in stopping abuses on all children – especially those without a voice.

At Estey & Bomberger, we fight for all victims of child molestation, and tirelessly work to ensure institutions are held responsible when they fail to protect our children.


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