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

Violence Against Women with Disabilities:
Policy Implications of What We Don't Know


Joye Whatley is a Program Specialist with the Special Projects Division of the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C. She may be reached by e-mail at whatleyj@ojp.usdoj.gov. The findings and conclusions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policies or positions of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Any attempt to understand the historical failure of the criminal justice system to collect statistics on violence committed against women with developmental or other disabilities should begin with an understanding of the long-standing focus on offenders within the criminal justice system. The scientific study of criminal victimization began in the 1940s, but most researchers at the time focused on victims’ culpability in the crime committed against them – reflecting society’s belief that those who were victimized were somehow responsible. With the emergence of the domestic violence, sexual assault, and other crime victims’ movements 20 and 30 years later, attention focused on the treatment

Until recently, the two major governmental sources of crime statistics did not collect data onthe disability status of the victim

 of crime victims and their “revictimization” in the criminal justice process. In the 1990s, after achieving measurable success in changing the criminal justice system, these grassroots movements began to coalesce into a professional victims’ field. But many challenges continue to confront the victims’ field, and one of the most critical is how to identify and serve those who, for a variety of reasons, are unable to report the crimes committed against them. When a crime goes unreported, justice is denied – and there are consequences for victims and their families and communities, as well as for service providers who seek funding and resources for effective prevention and intervention efforts.

Who are these “invisible” victims? The two major governmental sources of crime statistics are the FBI Uniform Crime Report and the National Crime Victimization Survey that is administered by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) within the U.S. Department of Justice. The FBI Uniform Crime Report records only crimes that are reported to law enforcement. The National Crime Victimization Survey collects information about unreported as well as reported crimes, with the exception of criminal homicides. Until recently, neither of these reports collected data on the disability status of the victim.

At the same time, disability advocates have described an epidemic of victimization among persons with developmental disabilities. Their assertions, based largely on anecdotal reports and small-scale research studies, did not engender broad-based policy responses at the federal level until the passage in 1998 of the Crime Victims with Disabilities Awareness Act (P.L. 301-105), which mandates the collection of statistics on the criminal victimization of people with disabilities. Beginning in 2000, BJS is administering, for a six-month period, an enhanced crime incident questionnaire to determine if a crime victim being interviewed has health conditions, impairments or disabilities that affect their daily living activities. The results will guide the inclusion of questions in the future administration of the National Crime Victimization Survey. In addition, BJS plans to develop a data collection instrument and sample to obtain crime victimization data from a known population of individuals with developmental disabilities.

Certainly the policy implications of collecting data on the criminal victimization of women as well as men and children with developmental disabilities are clear. As Senator Patrick Leahy remarked when introducing the legislation: “I am hopeful that in the days to come, the research directed by the Crime Victims with Disabilities Awareness Act will serve as the foundation for the growth and improvement of services available to victims with disabilities throughout our country.” While this data collection by BJS is an important step, from a policy perspective, we need to know more than “just the numbers.” Policymakers must continue to work for the aggressive investigation and prosecution of all crimes that are reported against women with developmental disabilities. They need to understand the causes and consequences of these crimes, and how to develop effective strategies to increase the reporting of them. They need to know how to build coordinated community responses to violence against women with disabilities and how to design, fund and evaluate programs and services that intervene with these victims in a way that ensures their personal safety and addresses the physical and psychological trauma of the victimization, without robbing them of their dignity and independence.

The Violence Against Women Act has been an important step forward in this nation’s efforts to end violence against women. Since its initial passage in 1994, the Department of Justice has awarded more than $700 million dollars in VAWA funds to law enforcement, prosecutors, victim advocates, and courts. On October 28 of this year, President Clinton signed into law the reauthorization of the act (VAWA 2000) containing additional emphases on violence against women with disabilities.

The Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) within the Office of Justice Programs at the U.S. Department of Justice has taken a leading role in raising awareness in the victims’ field about the victimization of persons with disabilities. In January 1998, the OVC-funded symposium, Working with Crime Victims with Disabilities, brought together a group of national experts from the victim assistance, disability advocacy, policy, and research fields to address exclusively the issues of individuals with disabilities as victims of criminal activity. As a result of what the victims’ field learned at that conference, OVC has funded numerous national scope training and technical assistance initiatives. It has modified the federal guidelines for the administration of Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) funding, the major source of financial support for victim services in this country, to better serve victims with disabilities. But perhaps the most important result has been the partnerships forged between the disability and victim advocacy fields, uniting our previous well-intentioned but separate efforts into a strong voice for fundamental justice for all victims, including women with developmental disabilities.