In April 2017, authorities discovered the body of Carl DeBrodie encased in concrete at a Fulton, Missouri storage facility. DeBrodie, who had developmental disabilities, died after months of abuse and neglect at the hand of his caregivers. According to court documents, DeBrodie was confined to a dark basement, had his medications withheld and was forced to fight other residents at Second Chance Homes, an organization that provided housing and care for people with developmental disabilities.
DeBrodie’s story is not unusual. People with disabilities are especially vulnerable to becoming victims of crime and abuse because they are often dependent on others for their care. Caregivers, the very people entrusted with aiding them, are often the perpetrators of financial, mental, physical or sexual abuse against them.
The Prevalence of Caregiver Violence and Abuse Against People With Disabilities
The term “disability” encompasses many forms and degrees of impairments, including physical, developmental and psychological disabilities. People with disabilities make up nearly one-fifth of the U.S. population, and they are four to 10 times more likely to be abused and at least twice as likely to be victims of violent victimization as people without disabilities.
Although exact figures are unknown, compared with the general population, people with disabilities are more likely to be abused or victimized by a caregiver. These individuals often see people with disabilities as “ideal victims” because they are less likely to report or be believed. Stress, substance abuse and financial problems can also lead to caregiver abuse against people with disabilities.
Abuse and violence come in many forms. Caregivers may withhold medical care, inappropriately restrict movement, steal and use Social Security payments or deprive victims of necessary physical accommodations, for example.
Sexual and physical violence are also high among people with disabilities. According to a 2016 study conducted by the University of Michigan, it is estimated that as many as 40 percent of women with disabilities experience sexual assault or physical violence in their lifetimes and that more than 90 percent of all people with developmental disabilities will experience sexual assault.
(Editor’s Note: Disabilities are increasingly prevalent among people with advancing age, and most cases of elder abuse are perpetrated against people who are vulnerable because of some degree of physical or psychological disability. As such, almost all cases of elder abuse can also be categorized as victimization of people with disabilities. These crimes are often perpetrated by caregivers.)
Risk Factors That Contribute to Caregiver Violence and Abuse
Many factors contribute to people with disabilities being at higher risk of experiencing victimization and abuse, such as limited physical access to services, limited transportation and reliance on caregivers for many of their daily needs. But Pamila Lew, a senior attorney with the Investigations Unit at Disability Rights California, says the greatest factor is isolation.
“Isolation results from actual physical segregation,” Lew tells A&E Real Crime, “such as being kept away from others in a private residence or settings such as congregate care homes (where people live in separate apartments but share common spaces), jails, prisons and juvenile detention facilities and segregated special educations schools, which are closed off from most members of the public.” Isolation is also worsened by lack of access to independent communications tools such as sign-language interpreters and assistive technology, she says.
How Crimes Against Disabled People are Usually Discovered
Underreporting of abuse and other crimes against people with disabilities remains a pervasive problem. When the perpetrator is a caregiver, victims are less likely to seek help or report the crimes. They fear the repercussions and uncertain outcomes.
Doctors and nurses should be on alert, but according to Lew, it’s dependent on their training. Warning signs of abuse and violence against people with disabilities include changes in behavior and sudden fears, broken bones and unexplained wounds, dehydration, malnourishment and poor hygiene, among other indicators.
“The crimes are generally discovered because the abuse or exploitation led to some…intervention that led to a guardianship petition being brought to the Courts,” Kimberly George, president of Project Guardianship, tells A&E Real Crime. That intervention might take the form of a hospitalization, eviction proceeding or a report to Adult Protective Services (APS).
While many victims and survivors of abuse and violence have used social media to get help, many people with disabilities don’t have access to technology. People with mobility challenges, for instance, might be unable to use websites that require mouse-clicking. Others might find the costs of equipment and software a barrier. As another form of abuse, caregivers can also prohibit the usage of technology.
“We tend not to see social media usage amongst our clients,” says George. “We can imagine social media also being used as a way of reaching and exploiting isolated victims.”
More Is Needed to Prevent Crimes Against People with Disabilities
As victims of abuse, people with disabilities face formidable barriers in seeking and obtaining help, support and justice, even though in most states they are considered “dependent adults” who are covered under mandated reporting laws. The victim response systems that should respond, according to Lew, are law enforcement, APS, the long-term care ombudsman, and the agencies that license care facilities, if that’s where the abuse occurred.
“The criminal legal system currently fails to ensure accountability from the perpetrators of harm and fails to keep people with disabilities safe,” says Lew.
In Lew’s opinion, failures occur at every stage. Law enforcement officials often fail to believe abuse reports by people with disabilities or discredit the victims because of their challenges. Officials might presume that a person with limited verbal capacity, for example, is unable to communicate and, because of this assumption, they do not interview the victim. On the same note, officials might also presume that a person with a psychiatric disability is delusional and incapable of reporting an actual incident of harm. Lew notes that there’s also failure to adequately prosecute these crimes because prosecutors might assume that a person with a disability is incapable of serving as a witness or that a case can be prosecuted without the victim testifying.
Currently, 26 states have registries to track individuals who abuse and mistreat people with disabilities. The data is based on agency investigations rather than criminal convictions. Even with these measures in place, George says more needs to be done—in particular, more supportive housing and better-trained guardians.