Impact Impact Feature Issue on Violence Against Women with Developmental or Other Disabilities

Serving Women with Developmental Disabilities:
Strategies for the Justice System


Marc Dubin is a Senior Trial Attorney with the Disability Rights Section, Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C. and former Special Counsel, Violence Against Women Office, U.S. Department of Justice. He is also the founder and Executive Director of CAVNET (Communities Against Violence Network). The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position or views of the U.S. Department of Justice. CAVNET is not affiliated with the U.S. Department of Justice. Many of the materials cited in this article as well as others are available on the CAVNET Web site, at http://www.cavnet2.org . Marc Dubin may be reached  by e-mail at mdubin@pobox.com

As a former prosecutor who now enforces the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for the federal government, I have seen a tremendous change over the past 10 years in the awareness of the criminal justice system regarding the needs of crime victims with disabilities. Far more resources are now available for police, prosecutors, judges, and others in the criminal justice system to learn how best to serve crime victims with disabilities. Crime victim advocates who provide services on behalf of women with disabilities are better funded today than ever before, largely due to the passage of the federal Violence Against Women Act and the tireless efforts of Bonnie Campbell (the Director of the Violence Against Women Office at the Justice Department) and her staff. Through grants provided by the Violence Against Women Office, the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) in the U.S. Department of Justice, and others, police officers, prosecutors, judges, advocates, and other components of the criminal justice system have received training and support to better address the needs of crime victims, including those with disabilities. Despite this progress, women with mental retardation and other developmental disabilities who have been victims of crimes remain largely unserved, and crimes against them largely unreported.

In this article, I will attempt to explore some of the issues facing police, prosecutors, judges, advocates, and other members of the criminal justice system, and provide some suggestions for how they can better serve women with developmental disabilities.

The Scope of The Problem

Women with mental retardation and other developmental disabilities are among the most vulnerable members of our society, experiencing a far higher rate of sexual assault and rape than other women, and experiencing this victimization repeatedly. While there are very few studies that have examined the victimization of women with mental retardation and other developmental disabilities, and far more work needs to be done to better assess this problem. The few studies that have been done provide a frightening picture of the world in which these women live. The existing studies reflect a rate of victimization for this population that may be as much as 10 times higher than that of the general population. One study found that more than 70% of women with developmental disabilities had been sexually assaulted, and that nearly 50% of women with mental retardation had been sexually assaulted 10 or more times in their lifetime (Sobsey and Doe, 1991). This represents a 50% higher rate than the rest of the population. Children with disabilities are also at greater risk. One study of children with disabilities found that they were 2.1 times as likely to be victims of physical abuse and 1.8 times as likely to experience sexual abuse as children without disabilities (Crosse, et al. 1993). Despite such high rates of victimization, few of these cases come to the attention of law enforcement.


Police officers need to be better trained to identify crime victims with mental retardation and other developmental disabilities, and must develop closer relationships with service providers and advocates. Collaborative efforts designed to improve the identification of victims and enhance the likelihood of reporting must be undertaken. Dispatch should identify the locations of group homes so that officers can recognize a victim who is a resident based on the victim’s home address, and victim services providers need to develop an ongoing relationship with these group homes and other residential facilities for people with mental retardation so that cross-training can be developed and relationships can be built.

What should a police officer do when he or she suspects that the crime victim has mental retardation or another developmental disability? First, the officer should be careful to use language that is easy to understand, and should not ask compound questions. Compound questions, such as “Who were you with and what happened?” may tend to confuse an individual with mild or moderate mental retardation. Break questions down into simple terms, and change the language of the question until you are understood. Do not ask questions which suggest the answer. Leading questions, which are easily answered in the affirmative, may result in misinformation, as many people with mild or moderate mental retardation are anxious to please the questioner, and may say “yes” to a question even when the question is not understood or the truthful answer is “no.” For this reason, it is also important to note that leading questions should not be asked of suspects with mental retardation, as a false confession may result. Quite often, people with mental retardation will try to disguise or hide their disability in an effort to fit in with mainstream society. Knowledge by police of the addresses of group homes and other residential facilities is helpful in identifying victims with disabilities. Also, advocates sometimes provide identification cards to their clients, so it is helpful to ask for such information.

A number of helpful materials have been developed in recent years, and many more are in the process of being developed. For example, Arc U.S. has excellent materials available for law enforcement, including a curriculum to teach officers about mental retardation and to make them aware of unique needs and characteristics of people with mental retardation. The curriculum, entitled Understanding Mental Retardation: Training for Law Enforcement, is available from Arc’s publications department (800/433-5255). The National Sheriff’s Association is in the process of developing a handbook for law enforcement to assist them in responding to crime victims with mental retardation, as well as crime victims with other disabilities. The handbook, entitled, First Response to Crime Victims, will be available free of charge from the Office for Victims of Crime Resource Center (800/627-6872).


Prosecutors have a crucial role to play in addressing this problem. Prosecutors can increase the number of cases reported and investigated simply by filing more of these cases. In light of the high rate of victimization, and the statistical likelihood that these victims will be re-victimized, prosecutors must work with the community, train law enforcement, develop close relationships with disability groups in the community, and file these cases. It is also imperative that prosecutors seek substantial sentences upon conviction.

But what about prosecutors’ concerns that these cases will take up too many resources, or can’t be won? Admittedly, some of these cases will take more resources than others, as it will be necessary to adequately investigate the victim’s ability to consent, ability to testify, or assess other cognitive abilities. The investment is well worth it. Identifying a serial rapist who drives a bus or who works in a group home is worth it. Giving a sexual assault victim the knowledge that the criminal justice system values her is worth it. And the chances for success should not be underestimated. Experience has shown that victims with autism and mental retardation often have very good memories. Recent research has shown that after viewing videotapes of live staged events, persons with developmental disabilities were as competent as people without disabilities when it came to remembering details of the crime. In fact, their testimony is sometimes more reliable because it is less subject to distortion (Henry and Gudjonsson, 1999). Increasingly, materials are being developed to assist prosecutors in presenting these cases (e.g., Admissible In Court: Interviewing Witnesses Who Live With Disabilities. Document number 778 at http://www.cavnet2.org.).

Victim Advocacy Organizations

Developing a relationship with disability rights organizations, police, and prosecutors is widely recognized as essential for successful advocacy. Too often, however, victim advocacy organizations fail to integrate people with expertise in the needs of crime victims with disabilities. It is very helpful in meeting the needs of crime victims with mental retardation and other developmental disabilities to foster good relationships with local and national resources, such as Arc chapters, Protection and Advocacy organizations, disability rights attorneys, University Affiliated Programs, and Independent Living Centers. CAVNET (Communities Against Violence Network) has developed a mailing list to assist with this effort. The Criminal Justice Network for People With Disabilities, an invitation-only/application-only mailing list, brings together experts and advocates in disability rights and experts and advocates in criminal justice issues to address the needs of people with disabilities in the criminal justice system. An application to join is located on the Web site.


Even if police arrest, prosecutors file, witnesses testify, and a conviction results, if judges do not sentence appropriately, women with mental retardation and other developmental disabilities will continue to be victimized and remain afraid to report the crimes against them. Judges need to be willing to send a strong message through the setting of bond conditions pretrial, and through sentencing post-trial and at probation revocation hearings, that they take crimes against women with mental retardation and other developmental disabilities seriously. They must get training in these cases so that they can help bring about the changes the criminal justice system so desperately needs.


The problem of the victimization of women with mental retardation and other developmental disabilities is one society is beginning to recognize and address. Each player in the criminal justice system is part of a seamless web, and each must endeavor to address this problem professionally. Together, the criminal justice system is capable of delivering what it promises – justice to victims of crime, including its most vulnerable victims.


  • Crosse, S. B., Kaye, E., & Ratnofsky, A. C. (1993). Report on the maltreatment of children with disabilities. Washington, DC: Westat Inc. National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect.

  • Henry, L. A., & Gudjonsson, G. H. (1999). Eyewitness memory and suggestibility in children with mental retardation. American Journal of Mental Retardation, 104(6), 491–508.

  • Sobsey, D., & Doe, T. (1991). Patterns of sexual abuse and assault. Sexuality and Disability, 9(3), 243–259.