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Promising Practices in Serving Crime Victims With Disabilities Printer-Friendly Option Promising Practices in Serving Crime Victims With Disabilities Image of a woman in a wheelchair working at a computer. Image of a woman walking alongside a man on a motorized scooter.
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Planning and Implementation
Planning and Implementation

Needs Assessment

With the help of their steering committees, each of the subgrantees completed a community needs assessment that included protocols and questionnaires for surveys, individual interviews, and focus groups tailored to the location and cultural profile of the project area (such as population and income statistics, dominant social issues, and urban or rural characteristics). Assessments focused on actual and potential community strengths in addressing the needs of crime victims with disabilities, and identified areas of weaknesses that could be addressed to improve community response. Most important, the assessments were designed to identify the barriers that hindered or prevented crime victims with disabilities from reporting an incident to authorities or seeking assistance from social service agencies.

Subgrantees included people with disabilities in all stages of the data collection process. They established safeguards for gathering information from persons with disabilities to ensure that each individual could make an informed choice about whether or not to participate in surveys, interviews, or focus groups. Nine of the ten subgrantees were required by state law to report suspicions or knowledge of victimization in their state; staff members disclosed this information to potential participants and let them know that they had a choice about how much information they shared.

Subgrantees took great care to ensure that participation would not jeopardize any individual’s health or safety, and assessed each person’s situation before going forward. They were especially vigilant in their methods of recruiting, contacting, and interviewing potential participants with disabilities, to avoid triggering the suspicion of an abuser who might be living with the person. In Ulster County, Crime Victims Assistance Program staff coordinated home interviews when it was safe to do so. When it was not safe to meet at an individual’s home, they provided transportation to a confidential location where the victim could safely meet with a staff member. Interviewers also informed assessment participants of their options for support if talking about a crime or victimization caused them further emotional trauma.

Fliers distributed at disability service provider offices, independent living centers, senior citizen centers, crisis centers, social service agencies, and housing developments for people with disabilities were important recruitment tools. Public means of recruiting were sometimes more effective than campaigns targeting disability-related agencies or groups. The Southern Arizona Center Against Sexual Assault significantly improved response to its online survey by advertising in a free local newspaper and in penny-saver mailers with a circulation of more than 300,000. For all the subgrantees, articles and notices in local papers, ads in free periodicals mailed to households or available in retail stores, and public service announcements proved to be effective ways of reaching people with disabilities.

During the assessment process, subgrantees collected data on the following:

  • Types of services crime victims with disabilities receive in their communities.

  • Gaps in and barriers to services.

  • Factors that discourage or prevent victims with disabilities from reporting crimes.

  • Community awareness of the needs of crime victims with disabilities.

  • Resources and processes that could help persons with disabilities access victim services and the criminal justice system.

The assessment results revealed much about the issues and conditions creating barriers for people with disabilities in the project communities, largely in regard to crime reporting and system issues and gaps.

Crime Reporting System

Surveys and interviews conducted during the community needs assessments revealed many specific reasons people with disabilities might not report being victimized. They included—

  • Fear of not being believed or embarrassment.

  • Fear of repercussions from the abuser, family, or others in their support system.

  • Fear of losing their independence or becoming isolated.

  • Dependence on an abuser.

  • Lack of information about personal rights or available services.

  • Fear or mistrust of the criminal justice process.

  • Fear of losing custody of children, housing, or financial support.

  • Previous negative experiences with law enforcement or crisis services.

  • Physical inaccessibility of services, including architectural barriers such as steps or doorways too narrow for wheelchairs and lack of accessible public transportation or sign language interpreters.

These are realistic concerns for crime victims with disabilities, and many related situations became apparent during the project. For instance, the Carbondale Police Department identified personal care attendants as the primary perpetrators of crimes such as theft, physical and mental abuse, and sexual assault against people with disabilities in their area. Interviews revealed that some participants felt trapped in situations in which they were being harmed physically or that affected their mental well-being because of poor care by their attendants. Many assessments identified personal care issues as common obstacles to reporting victimization. Victims with disabilities most often endured abuse out of fear that a new attendant might treat them even worse, or that no replacement attendant would be found and thus they would no longer receive support services.

For individuals living in facilities or institutions, as a disproportionate number of people with disabilities do in the area served by the Ulster County Crime Victims Assistance Program, the risks of reporting may be much greater than the benefits. In their assessment, Ulster County found that people with disabilities reported feeling undermined by medical personnel who questioned the legitimacy of reported abuse or the credibility of accusations from people with psychiatric disabilities.

When the abuser is someone with the authority to control a person’s daily activities, as in schools and other restricted settings, it can become even more difficult for individuals with disabilities to safely report being victimized. In the Network of Victim Assistance assessment, people with disabilities voiced concerns about the ability of professionals such as disability service staff, educators, and school personnel to discredit them or downplay reports of abuse to avoid dealing with the situation.

Assessment results from the Chadwick Center, Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office, the Partnership Against Domestic Violence, and other subgrantees suggest that lack of information about personal rights and safety is a widespread problem for people with disabilities, especially if they have little experience working or living in the community. Some people with disabilities surveyed or interviewed assumed that crime was something committed by a stranger, and believed that victimization by someone familiar was a personal issue rather than a crime. Others had inadequate knowledge of how to respond to an abusive situation, access available services, or report an incident.

A significant number of the individuals surveyed or interviewed who had reported being victimized said they had no reason to trust the systems in place to help them. Ulster County respondents with disabilities cited issues of standing protective orders not being enforced and of law enforcement failing to locate and apprehend perpetrators. For the Stavros Center/Safe Passage, these sentiments were echoed in a community service mapping exercise, which revealed that cases involving abuse against people with disabilities stood little chance of ever being prosecuted in local courts.

The Southern Arizona Center also found that people with disabilities participating in its needs assessments lacked confidence in crisis service providers. Surveys, focus groups, and interviews revealed low expectations regarding the ability of law enforcement and other crisis response systems to provide sensitive and accessible services. Considering the prevalence of crimes against this population, these admissions are disturbing.
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System Issues and Gaps

The assessment results validated many of the concerns raised by individual participants and exposed significant disability-related gaps in services and support for crime victims. While conducting self-assessments, some organizations realized that their own facilities and programs were not accessible, their outreach efforts were not targeting crime victims with disabilities, or that people with disabilities had little experience with agencies of their type, and therefore had no basis for trusting their services.

Subgrantees identified the following gaps in services in their communities:

  • Lack of coordination among key systems such as criminal justice, domestic violence, sexual assault, and other victim and disability service organizations. It was not uncommon for staff and field workers from these types of agencies to have little knowledge of the roles, intake processes, and responsibilities of other agencies. Many of the needs assessments revealed that crisis and disability service providers, in particular, did not have an understanding of law enforcement policy and protocols or of screening for abuse. Many local law enforcement agencies also had limited or no knowledge of the services or referral processes of the organizations that assist people with disabilities.

  • Lack of awareness about victimization of people with disabilities. Subgrantees found that many disability service providers did not always recognize signs of abuse or other forms of victimization, and that some were uncomfortable discussing sexuality, domestic violence, or other “personal” issues with the people their agency served. Some frontline staff also lacked training in how to respond sensitively to suspicions or reports of abuse, or failed to understand how frequently people with disabilities are victimized. These gaps in knowledge and skill often led to a lack of response, failure to report that an individual with a disability had been victimized, and missed opportunities for referring these victims to shelters, victim service programs, or the criminal justice system.

  • Lack of disability-related knowledge and training among victim service providers and law enforcement agencies. Assessments indicated the need for training on how to communicate with people with various disabilities, the prevalence of abuse against people with disabilities, risk factors unique to people with disabilities, ways to increase accessibility to services, and how to make appropriate referrals to protection organizations. Some local law enforcement agencies had little experience interviewing people with disabilities or investigating crimes against them. Some also discovered institutional barriers that minimized the offenses, such as facilities that investigated the matter internally rather than involving the criminal justice system.
Despite the challenges and issues revealed during the assessments, the results enabled each subgrantee to clarify its community’s understanding of and response to the needs of people with disabilities in the aftermath of a crime. The information gathered proved highly valuable in helping the projects identify resources, innovative processes, and strategic partnerships, and in assisting local criminal justice and victim service systems in overcoming obstacles to serving people with disabilities.
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