Successfully Investigating Sexual Assault Against Victims with Disabilities

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90 Minutes

Originally Aired
May 28, 2014

Shirley Pacely
Shirley Paceley
Founder and Director, Blue Tower Training, Macon Resources, Inc.
Sergeant Joanne Archambault (Ret.)
Founder & Chief Executive Officer, EVAWI
Kim Lonsway
Kimberly A. Lonsway, Ph.D.
Director of Research, EVAWI

Most training on sexual assault of people with disabilities typically focuses on issues such as the following:

  • Definitions, descriptions, and characteristics of various disabilities
  • Legal requirements (e.g., compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act)
  • Physical accessibility issues
  • Communication guidelines (e.g., language use, communication aids and services)
  • Etiquette, respect, and empowerment

These are critically important areas, and the primary message of such training is often to “see the person, not the disability.” Police officers are taught to approach victims with disabilities and the investigation “like they would in any other case.” The hope is that victims who have a disability will be treated with the same respect as other victims, and this is an important goal we all need to support.

However, when training for law enforcement focuses solely on respect, police officers are left wondering what they should actually do when they are assigned to investigate a crime against a person with a disability. How do they approach the victim, craft an investigative strategy, and gather and document the relevant evidence? How do they effectively communicate with victims, and ensure they are doing everything they can to protect victims’ safety while still respecting their self-autonomy? How do they access and utilize the people, technologies, and resources that might be available to help?

This webinar is designed to answer some of these questions.

Who Will Benefit

This training material is primarily focused on a law enforcement perspective, providing information and guidance for first responders as well as investigators and even prosecutors. However, it is intended to be equally helpful for others whose work intersects with the criminal justice system, to ensure that people with disabilities who are victimized have equal access to information, programs, and services – and that they are treated with fairness, compassion, and respect. Everyone involved in the criminal justice and community response system plays a critical role in providing that access and fair treatment.

Course Overview

  • We will begin by offering a brief overview of the prevalence and impact of sexual assault committed against people with disabilities, as well as some basic information about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • Next, we will examine the general framework for crafting an investigative strategy, based on key factors such as whether the victim is capable of consenting to sexual activity and whether the suspect is in a caregiver role or other position of authority.
  • Various stages of the investigation will then be described, including the initial response and preliminary investigation, the detailed follow-up interview(s) with the victim, and other steps taken to identify additional evidence and witnesses.
  • For victims who have a severe cognitive disability, the key determination will be whether they have the capacity to legally consent to sexual acts. We will briefly describe the various legal tests and strategies used to answer this question.
  • The next section focuses exclusively on the sexual assault of victims who have cognitive disabilities, with particular emphasis on intellectual disabilities. This type of case is commonly reported to law enforcement, and there are fundamental implications for how the investigation and prosecution will proceed, particularly during the interview.
  • Throughout the webinar, we will recommend initiatives that can be undertaken with multidisciplinary collaboration, such as a Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team (SARRT).
  • We will also refer participants to additional resource materials and tools that can be used for training purposes and also to improve the application of these principles to daily practices.

This project is supported by Grant No. 2013-TA-AX-K021 awarded by the Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed in this publication/program are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women.

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