Program Profile

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

The Struggle for Equal Justice: California Victims of Crime Committee


Daniel D. Sorensen  is Chair of the California Victims of Crime Committee, Sacramento. He can be reached by e-mail at

The U.S. Congress, the U.S. Surgeon General, the U.S. Public Health Service, and the Governor, Attorney General and state legislature of California all have stated that people with disabilities are at greater risk for crime, violence, and abuse. The “at greater risk” phrase used by public officials seems like standard bureaucratic understatement. I think a more accurate statement is that there is an epidemic of crime and violence against people with disabilities. This epidemic has largely been unrecognized and unaddressed by advocates, service providers, the criminal justice system, and people with disabilities and their family members.

While crime and violence disproportionately affect both men and women with disabilities, in many categories of crime, it is the women who have the higher rate. We do target crime and violence programs for women for reforms to better serve women with disabilities, but in most cases we must reform the criminal justice and service provider systems in general to better serve women with disabilities.

An Awakening

In 1992, I was on a task force to examine the problem of offenders with developmental disabilities. While researching this issue I came upon my first few articles on crime against people with developmental disabilities. I was dumbfounded and could not believe that the rate of crime was so high. I am the parent of an adult son with severe developmental disabilities, had been a professional advocate for this population, and was a veteran of 30 years of the civil rights movement for people with disabilities. I could not believe these studies because no one in our movement was talking about the issue. But finally I was forced to admit that we had been asleep at the switch, that we had failed to realize a profound threat to the quality of life of people with disabilities. As a result we created a victims of crime committee of the task force with a mission to fight crime against and achieve equal justice for people with disabilities. Later, it became the California Victims of Crime Committee.

The good news is that over the last eight years there has been the beginning of an awakening on this issue. While at first there were only a handful of individuals working on this problem, there are now hundreds of people. The momentum appears irreversible and in the next eight years we hope to see thousands of people dedicated to combating crime and violence against people with disabilities.

The California Victims of Crime Committee

The committee is based on one of the central lessons in the lives of people with disabilities – that no one is going to give us the services we need or insure our civil rights unless we organize and are strong enough to secure these rights for ourselves. Support from our friends is wonderful, but ultimately it is us, people with disabilities and family members, who must carry the struggle.Recruiting advocacy organizations of people with disabilities and their family members to this cause was not always easy, as most were unaware of the problem. We set about and continue the work of educating the advocacy community about this issue. First, they must be made aware and then they need to make it one of their priorities. This can be difficult because it is often a new idea and because they are usually struggling with more important issues than they have time or resources to adequately address. We must compete with these other important issues for time and attention.

We organized around some other central beliefs. We committed to a coalition of all disability communities because this issue cuts across disability communities and because we are stronger as a united front. We also believe that necessary change is unlikely unless we bring to the same table the disabilities communities, the organizations of the criminal justice system, and service providers, including responsible state agencies. Our coalition has grown to 47 organizations and numerous individuals as of this date. We decided to focus on state and federal policy and legislation because we were a statewide coalition and were based in the state capitol.

As a volunteer organization, we hang by the thread of the gift of time and energy from very busy people. It is a constant struggle to recruit, and when individuals leave to re-recruit, representatives from all the organizations that need to be at the table. First the Arc California and then the Organization of Area Boards have provided the critical support of mailings and space for our meetings. We operate without funding.

What Have We Accomplished?

We have accomplished several things over the eight years of our existence. We recognize that they are just some beginning steps along a long road. First, we have worked to educate advocacy organizations of people with disabilities and their family members about crime and violence against people with disabilities. We have asked them to make this one of their top priorities. This is an endless task as people come and go in the leadership of these organizations and as other issues compete for attention. We have been working at this for eight years and still many organizations have not been reached.

We have helped pass laws. We wrote and sponsored state legislation that closed a gaping hole in mandated reporting law that allowed mandated reporters to not report crimes against people with disabilities if they decided that the crime probably did not occur.

We sponsored the federal Crime Victims with Disabilities Awareness Act, which requires the National Crime Victims Survey to collect victimization data on people with disabilities. It also requires the U.S. Attorney General to issue a report on crime against people with disabilities, which is due out this year.

We have drafted proposed federal legislation, the Crime Victims with Disabilities Services Act, which is being considered for introduction in the next session of Congress. It would provide funding for research, training, and public information efforts. We are circulating this draft legislation for suggestions and to ask for support. Senators DeWine, Feinstien, Kennedy, Leahy and others are considering this initiative.

In California, we have helped to get the Crime Victims with Disabilities Initiative into the governor’s budget. We believe that Governor Gray Davis is the first to establish a permanent state program to provide crime prevention and access to justice programs for people with disabilities.

The California attorney general has, at our urging, committed to develop with the District Attorney’s Association a training package on how to investigate and prosecute cases involving victims with disabilities. He further promises to develop one or more video training packages on how to interview victims and witnesses with disabilities.

Other results of our work include sharing information and building partnerships between the organizations of the committee. Examples include four state agencies that have formed a partnership with the California State Library to establish a central collection of books, articles and materials on crime and violence against people with disabilities. We have also seen the Governor’s Office of Criminal Justice Planning that distributes criminal justice funds start to address crime against people with disabilities. Examples include TTYs for domestic violence centers and a grant to collect data and develop training for the criminal justice system and child abuse agencies on how to address crime against children with disabilities.

We also work to bring this issue before the public whenever possible. We have stimulated two front-page stories in major newspapers in California and have made numerous presentations at meetings and conferences.

The Need for Committees Like This

There are many advantages of committees like the California Victims of Crime Committee. As a voluntary body we can take positions and fight for reforms with a freedom not available to a governmental organization. We bring advocates, criminal justice system organizations, service providers, and government agencies together. We believe that, like child abuse, elder abuse or domestic violence, this problem cannot be solved without such a multidisciplinary approach.

There is a similar committee that works on local issues. It is the Tri Counties Task Force located in Central California and is similar in composition and mission to the California Victims of Crime Committee.

We offer our committee as a model for people with disabilities, their families and friends, professionals and the criminal justice system. We urge you to establish something like our committee in your state and communities as a place to share information and to push for needed reforms.