Although violent crime in the United States has declined over the past five years, certain groups appear to remain at disproportionately high risk for violent victimization. In the United States, people with developmental disabilities—such as mental retardation, autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and severe learning disabilities may be included in this group. While the scientific evidence is scanty, a handful of studies from the United States, Canada, Australia, and Great Britain consistently find high rates of violence and abuse affecting people with these kinds of disabilities.
A number of social and demographic trends are converging that may worsen the situation considerably over the next several years. The prevalence of developmental disabilities has increased in low-income populations, due to a number of factors, such as poor prenatal nutrition, lack of access to health care or better perinatal care for some fragile babies, and increases in child abuse and substance abuse during pregnancy. For example, a recent report of the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities found that during the past decade, while the state population increased by 20 percent, the number of persons with developmental disabilities in California increased by 52 percent and the population segment with mild mental retardation doubled (Frankland, 1996).
In addition, because of deinstitutionalization and new legislation, particularly the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, many people with developmental disabilities now live in un-
safe community settings where they get little health care, have access to few social services, and are easy targets for criminal predators. Fully a third (34 percent) of adults with disabilities live in households with a total income of $15,000 or less, compared with only 12 percent of those without disabilities (Harris, 1998).
Because of a growing concern among parents and advocates regarding possible high rates of crime victimization among persons with developmental disabilities, Congress, through the Crime Victims with Disabilities Awareness Act of 1998, requested that the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences:
conduct a study to increase knowledge and information about crimes against individuals with developmental disabilities that will be useful in developing new strategies to reduce the incidence of crimes against those individuals. The study . . . shall address such issues as: (1) the nature and extent of crimes against individuals with developmental disabilities; (2) the risk factors associated with victimization of individuals with developmental disabilities; (3) the manner in which the justice system responds to crimes against individuals with disabilities; and (4) the means by which states may establish and maintain a centralized computer database on the incidence of crimes against individuals with disabilities within a state.
Because of the scarcity of empirical research on these issues, the National Research Council and the U.S. Department of Justice agreed that the best way to fulfill this mandate was to convene a workshop, rather than a full-scale study, to bring together researchers, practitioners, legal scholars, and advocates to discuss the state of knowledge in this area and highlight gaps in the research. This report provides details of important issues that were discussed at the workshop but, under National Research Council rules for workshop reports, does not draw definitive conclusions nor make recommendations.
For the purposes of this request, the legislation further defined developmental disabilities, in accordance with P.L. 42 § 6001(8), as follows:
The term developmental disability means a severe, chronic disability of an individual 5 years of age or older that is attributable to a mental or physical impairment or combination of mental and physical impairments; is manifested before the individual attains age 22; is likely to continue indefinitely; results in substantial functional limitations in three or more of the following areas of major life activity—self-care; receptive and expressive language; learn-
ing; mobility; self-direction; capacity for independent living; and economic self-sufficiency; and reflects the individual's need for a combination and sequence of special, interdisciplinary, or generic services, supports, or other assistance that is of lifelong or extended duration and is individually planned and coordinated, except that such term, when applied to infants and young children means individuals from birth to age 5, inclusive, who have substantial developmental delay or specific congenital or acquired conditions with a high probability of resulting in developmental disabilities if services are not provided.
As we discuss in this report, there are many different definitions of disability that have been used in research and data collection. However, these definitions do not necessarily coincide with the legal definition cited above.
A number of factors have impeded data collection and research efforts on the victimization experiences of vulnerable populations, including those with developmental disabilities. One involves reporting problems associated with vulnerable victims and stigmatizing events—for example, the reporting of sexual abuse of young children, elderly people, or people with disabilities who are dependent on caregivers. A second factor involves the problem of how to identify individuals with developmental disabilities and the behaviors against them that constitute crimes. A third is the apparent weakness of criminal justice system responses when cases that involve vulnerable victims are reported to the authorities. In general, there is a paucity of information about the characteristics of victims and offenders, as well as the interpersonal dynamics and contextual factors that may lead to abuse, neglect, and exploitation.
SCOPE OF THE REPORT
This report draws primarily on the papers and other presentations that were made at the October 1999 workshop. It addresses the following broad questions listed in the National Research Council's proposal:
What is known about the nature and extent of crimes against vulnerable victims, including persons with developmental disabilities, and the risk factors associated with victimization, and what more do we need to know in order to reduce these crimes?
What are the personal and social consequences of victimization of the disabled and how can these be ameliorated?
What is the importance of place and context in understanding crimes against the developmentally disabled, as well as other vulnerable groups, and how can we better understand the dynamics and interaction of caregiver, victim, and context in order to provide improved public safety for this population?
How can statistics on the victimization of vulnerable populations, including the developmentally disabled, be developed or improved?
How do the justice and social service systems currently respond to crimes against the developmentally disabled, and how can that response be improved?
Because of the lack of research in this area, the studies of victimization cited by workshop paper authors in this report are few, and most have major methodological flaws. They frequently lack well-designed sampling frames, validated interview methods and protocols, and control groups. For these reasons, no firm conclusions about the major questions contained in the legislation cited above can be drawn from them.
Still, these studies do document a serious victimization problem among people with developmental disabilities. While we cannot draw valid comparisons with victimization rates for other groups, both the nature of the crimes directed against the population with disabilities and the level of harm these crimes inflict suggest to the paper authors and the editors of this report that better research is necessary if society is to protect these most vulnerable citizens. It is in this context that the results of extant research on the victimization of people with disabilities are discussed.