Truly startling facts exist when it comes to the sexual assault of people with special needs. People with special needs are classified by the U.S. Justice Department as individuals with disabilities. We recognize that there is debate and discussion over the proper terminology to utilize when discussing situations involving people with physical or cognitive impairments or special needs. We always strive to use the most appropriate terminology, but do recognize that within the law enforcement community, victims with disabilities remains a widely utilized term of art. Having noted that, we present information about facts and factors associated with the investigation of crimes of sexual assault perpetrated against individuals that have special physical or cognitive needs.
Alarming Statistical Information Concerning People With Special Needs and Sexual Assault
Individuals with physical or cognitive needs are sexually assaulted at rate that is three-times higher than what is experienced by the so-called general population. On a related note, over 50 percent of these incidents of sexual assault are never reported to law enforcement officials.
Some more specific statistics underscore the challenges faced in investigating cases of sexual assault perpetrated against individuals with special physical or cognitive needs.
- 83 percent of women with a physical or cognitive limitation will be sexually assaulted during the course of their lifetimes
- A meager 3 percent of incidents of sexual abuse perpetrated on individuals with developmental disabilities are ever reported to authorities
- 50 percent of girls who are deaf are sexually abused (a rate twice the level of the hearing population of females)
- 54 percent of boys who are deaf are sexually abused (a rate five-times that of the hearing population of males)
- 50 percent of women with developmental disabilities have been sexually assaulted more than 10 times.
Glen Ridge Rape Case
Rather than continue to enumerate one statistics after another, revisiting what commonly is known as the Glen Ridge rape case helps to illustrate the unique challenges of investigating and then prosecuting a case of sexual assault perpetrated on an individual with developmental limitations.
The Glen Ridge rape case occurred in 1989 and was the first time the sexual assault of a person with developmental limitations garnered national attention. Moreover, the case remains an alarming and yet instructive example of the challenges associated with investigation and prosecuting a case of sexual assault perpetrated against a person with developmental limitations.
Before considering the facts of the Glen Ridge rape case, a word of caution is necessary. This case involves particularly heinous conduct on the part of the perpetrators and is a tragic example of how a person with development limitations can be abused.
Glen Ridge is a well-to-do suburban town in New Jersey. The 1989 rape case has left a stain on that community that will long be evident.
In 1989, a group of 13 popular male high school athletes persuaded a girl from the school’s special education program to come into the basement of one of their homes. The male students promised the girl that if she went with them into the basement, she would be able to “go on a date” with a football player the girl had a crush on. Once in the basement, the girl was forced to perform oral sex and was vaginally penetrated with a broomstick and baseball bat.
The girl has an IQ of 64. A person with an IQ at this level is considered “mildly impaired.” An individual with this level of IQ is able to live independently as an adult, but does require assistance with a number of different elements of daily living.
Before the actual physical aspect of the assault commenced, six of the males left the basement, knowing full wall what was to occur and doing nothing to stop the crimes. None of the males reported the incident.
Ultimately, in 1992, four of the perpetrators of these crimes were convicted. Three were convicted of aggravated sexual assault and one was convicted of conspiring to commit these crimes.
The Glen Ridge rape case sharply divided the community. There were people in the suburban enclave that took the position that law enforcement and the criminal justice system should “go easy” on the perpetrators. This swath of the community took the position that the young men had bright futures and the victim, a girl with developmental issues, “had no future.”
The victim evidently never told the males to leave her alone. As a consequence, there was an effort on the part of the defense team to portray her as something of a “willing participant” in what was a horrific, violent, demeaning sexual assault. When the victim herself was questioned at trial about why she evidently didn’t tell the perpetrators to leave her alone, she responded:
“I didn’t want to hurt their feelings.”
This response alone underscores the pervasive and significant challenges of investigating and prosecuting a case of sexual assault perpetrated on a person with developmental issues. Indeed, police make clear these types of cases represent some of the hardest to investigate. Moreover, prosecutors consistently maintain these are some of the most challenging cases to bring to a successful conclusion in the criminal justice system.
Attempts continue to be made by investigators and prosecutors to learn from the Glen Ridge rape case. With that said, the horrific sexual assault of people with developmental disabilities continues to be a significant and grotesque matter. For example, 25 years after the Glen Ridge rape case, an “eerily similar” sexual assault of a person with development limitations occurred in Steubenville, Ohio. There were two significant differences between the Steubenville and Glen Ridge cases. In Steubenville, the perpetrators plied the victim with copious amounts of alcohol and assaulted her after she passed out. And, the perpetrators in Steubenville (and their friends) posted images of the assault on social media.
Resources for Investigating Sexual Assaults Perpetrated Against Victims With Disabilities
There is now something of a concerted library of resources that can prove helpful to law enforcement investigators and prosecutors where in comes to cases involving the sexual assault of individuals with developmental and other disabilities.
Assisting Victims and Witnesses with Disabilities in the Criminal Justice System: A Curriculum for Law Enforcement Officers
Institute on Disabilities, Temple University
Beyond Labels—Working with Abuse Survivors with Mental Illness Symptoms or Substance Abuse Issues
Crime against People with Disabilities
Bureau of Justice Statistics
Crime Victimization in Adults with Severe Mental Illness: Comparison with the National Crime Victimization Survey
Arch Gen Psychiatry
First Response to Victims of Crime: A Guidebook for Law Enforcement Officers
Office for Victims of Crime, U.S. Department of Justice
In addition, victims of crimes of sexual assault can access resources through state agencies like the California Victim Compensation Board.