Protecting Kids with Disabilities from Sexual Abuse

November 6, 2013

Several Charlottesville non-profits are teaming up to prevent sexual abuse of children with disabilities. A workshop Wednesday night gave parents and caretakers a chance to bounce ideas and experiences off one another.

According to the Disability and Abuse Project, about 70 percent of people with disabilities say they have been abused. About 40 percent say they have been sexually abused.

"It's a scary topic, but it's such an important topic, and I think people avoid it because it's so scary," said Donna Cattell-Gordon.

Cattell-Gordon's son has autism.

"This was very helpful for me because I had a fear of it," She said. "One of the most important things for me was I didn't understand how a predator might think, so that was extremely helpful to think oh, well I can block that now I know that."

Rachel Thielmann, a prevention education specialist at Foothills Child Advocacy Center, led Wednesday's workshop. She says it can be difficult to know just may many children are being sexually abused because many of them can't speak up for themselves.

"We know that a lot of abuse goes unreported," said Thielmann. "We know that from adults that disclose much later on that they were abused as a child."

Thielmann's presentation highlighted the fact that children with disabilities are twice as likely to be sexually abused, and that the vast majority of abusers are people the victims know.

"About 80 to 90 percent of children that are abused are abused by someone they know, and that's why good prevention is really important," said Thielmann. "What we most times teach children about is to be aware of strangers and that's how you stay safe, but in reality what we need to teach children is how to be safe from the other adults in their life."

Thielmann suggests limiting instances where one adult and one child are alone together. When it is not possible, she says to make sure the situation is observable and interruptible, like leaving doors open or unexpectedly dropping in on the two.

She also says it is important to monitor your child's internet use, as perpetrators often seek victims online using websites children frequently use.

Other tips included listening to and observing the mood and stress of a child after they have spent time in the care of another adult, screening the staff and volunteers that take care of them, and teaching children skills to help keep the safe, such as learning to say 'no' when they do not want to be touched.

"We all need to be vigilant, we all need to be aware, and there are steps that everyone can take, every single adult, in the way you interact with children, whether it's your own children or whether it's children that you know and care about. There are ways that you can make sure that you are treating them to teach them safety," said Thielmann.

And parents say the education needs to be community-wide.

"I think it's important for the whole community to get over a sense of reticence of talking about sexuality and predators and disability and say this is really important," said Cattell-Gordon. "We have to learn to be better at this, and the only way we're going to learn is to talk to each other, share our knowledge, and come up with a really good curriculum that will keep our kids safe."

This is the first of a series of three workshops. A future workshop will cover disabilities trusts and guardianship, and a separate workshop will be held for the siblings of children with disabilities.

The Virginia Institute of Autism, Blue Ridge Care Connection for Children, the Virginia Region Autism Action Group and Foothills Child Advocacy Center are working together to provide the free workshops.

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