By Elizabeth D. Scheibel, Northwestern District Attorney (ret.) Co-Chair, Building Partnerships for the Protection of Persons with Disabilities Initiative and Nancy A. Alterio, Executive Director, Massachusetts Disabled Persons Protection Commission Co-Chair, Building Partnerships for the Protection of Persons with Disabilities Initiative
February 19, 2020
In the late 1990s, after a series of high-profile criminal cases involving victims with an intellectual and developmental disability (I/DD), a group of interested professionals in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts collectively found themselves in a position of introspection. Was the Commonwealth delivering to its citizens with a disability equal access and justice under the law? The answer became apparent. There were glaring gaps in the system. The question then became – How to ensure that victims with a disability had the same access and rights afforded to victims without a disability?
This resulted in a watershed moment for the Commonwealth, as this group of committed individuals representing law enforcement, human services and adult protection (APS) determined that more could, and should, be done to address crimes against persons with a disability – and they endeavored to make it happen. From this humble beginning, the group created the Building Partnerships for the Protection of Persons with Disabilities Initiative (BPI). Like any collaboration of this nature, BPI had its fair share of growing pains, but it would become a national model for responding to the victimization of persons with a disability. BPI provides to individuals with a disability, as well as professionals across multiple victim-focused and service-providing fields, education and outreach on topics, such as crime prevention, effective crime reporting and the investigation and prosecution of abuse and crimes committed against persons with a disability. In addition to its robust training models for persons with a disability, providers, adult protection, law enforcement and others, BPI has facilitated cooperative agreements between these various parties to create a formalized protocol for addressing crimes against persons with a disability, greatly enhancing effective responses to these crimes.
In Massachusetts, APS investigations involving abuse of persons with a disability between 18 and 59 years of age are overseen by the Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC). DPPC has been a key member of BPI since its inception and its staff works tirelessly to promote cross collaboration in the Commonwealth. In 2015, BPI partners identified a gap in providing services to sexual assault victims with a disability.
Research has shown that persons with I/DD are sexually assaulted at more than seven times the rate as persons without a disability. Victims with a disability have the same responses to trauma as persons without a disability. If they don’t receive trauma therapy, they are much less likely to spontaneously recover from sexual trauma. Yet, in the Commonwealth in 2015, access to trauma services was virtually non-existent for victims with I/DD. To address this critical issue, with assistance from the Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance (MOVA), DPPC secured federal grant funding to establish its Sexual Assault Response Unit (SARU).
SARU is designed to address the needs of survivors with a disability, as well as to decrease victimization and increase resiliency. SARU comprises four components – Navigation, Clinical Matching, Peer Support and Advisory Council. Navigation provides survivors with a disability support, resources and referrals, and works to reduce barriers and ensures meaningful access to trauma services. Clinical Matching provides compatibility services, so that survivors receive clinical support from clinicians trained to respond to trauma in persons with a disability. Peer Support Leaders promote empowerment, education and accessibility for sexual assault survivors with a disability. In particular, peer support specialists use their own experiences to connect and provide support to other survivors, encourage inclusiveness and help transform the way professionals and others respond to sexual assault victims with a disability. Finally, the SARU Advisory Council utilizes leaders in the fields of disabilities, sexual violence, law enforcement, academia and others to guide the unit, create new avenues to address sexual abuse of persons with a disability and promote opportunities for healing.
Abuse of persons with a disability is not a problem that can be resolved by any one individual, agency or system – a silo approach to a problem of this magnitude simply doesn’t work. It requires partnerships. While the formation of a partnership can be cumbersome and collaboration can be difficult, it is necessary. Each of us plays an important role in addressing abuse and ensuring appropriate trauma services, whether it’s a focus on prevention and protection, services, investigation or prosecution. No matter our focus, survivors with a disability must be foremost in our thoughts and included in our work. One need only look to Peer Support Leaders and other survivors with a disability who are taking charge and using their voices to develop a national vision and plan to address sexual violence against persons with a disability.