Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Children with Disabilities in the Child Welfare System

Specialized Training on Maltreatment and Disability: VCU's Web Curriculum


Peggy O’Neill is author of the course and Abuse and Disabilities Coordinator, Partnership for People with Disabilities, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond.

Early identification of abuse and neglect, intervention, and appropriate treatment are crucial to insure the health and safety of children and youth with developmental disabilities. Unfortunately, it can be more difficult to recognize maltreatment of these individuals, and treatment options are limited. Young people with disabilities may be unaware that they are experiencing abuse, since they are often taught to be compliant with anyone in authority. They may also be unable to communicate what happened to them, or they may be afraid to tell for fear of retaliation, loss of care, or institutionalization. If they do tell someone, they may not be understood because of communication difficulties, or they may not be believed because of doubts about their cognitive or mental abilities. Isolated from mainstream society, children and youth with disabilities just may not have anyone else to tell.

The Partnership for People with Disabilities, a University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD) at Virginia Commonwealth University, became involved in developing training about abuse and neglect of people with developmental disabilities in 1997. In that year, a multidisciplinary group of parents and professionals in Virginia who were alarmed about reports of abuse of children with disabilities in schools and institutions formed the Virginia Coalition on Abuse and Disabilities. As they uncovered more stories of maltreatment, it became clear to this group that the systems for protecting vulnerable children and adults were ill-prepared to provide adequate services for people with disabilities. The Coalition specifically asked parents, educators, law enforcement officers, and child protective services workers what they needed to know about abuse and neglect of children with disabilities. Based on their input, and with the support of the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, a comprehensive curriculum,Abuse and Neglect of Children with Disabilities: A Collaborative Response,was developed. The two-day interdisciplinary training has been offered in Virginia since 1999, with the joint support of Virginia’s Departments of Social Services, Education, and Criminal Justice Services. The Partnership received further requests from others who needed training about maltreatment of people with disabilities, including justice and courts professionals, health professionals, and other human services professionals. In response, three additional training curricula were developed by the Partnership, including courses on children with disabilities in the justice system (Reaching Out to Community Kids), women with disabilities (Violence Against Women with Disabilities: The Response of the Criminal Justice System), and a comprehensive Web-based course on maltreatment issues,Abuse and Neglect of Children and Adults with Developmental Disabilities: A Problem of National Significance.

The Web Curriculum

Developed with the support of the Administration on Developmental Disabilities, the Web course –Abuse and Neglect of Children and Adults with Developmental Disabilities: A Problem of National Significancewas created in collaboration with seven states’ UCEDDs, and five states’ Protection and Advocacy agencies. They facilitated a national review and pilot-test of the curriculum, which became available online in spring 2005. This comprehensive, interactive course features self-paced instruction; video interviews with children and adults with developmental disabilities, their caregivers, and disabilities specialists; an extensive bibliography; helpful resources; links to relevant Web sites; and a seminar discussion guide for use with groups. A wide range of topics are addressed, including scope and significance of the problem, overview of developmental disabilities, communication issues, risk factors, family and cultural issues, special considerations in the use of medications, recognizing sexual abuse, assessment and documentation, reporting, follow-up and treatment, prevention, and resources. Continuing education credits are pre-approved for nurses, social workers, certified counselors, rehabilitation counselors, psychologists, and other professionals who complete the course.

Outcomes of the Training

Nearly 200 professionals from 24 states and 2 other countries have registered for the course. Evaluation comments from participants who have completed the course indicate that this online training is relevant and useful for professionals from a wide variety of disciplines. Participants report that they especially appreciate the comprehensive information, extensive resources and links to other sites, and easy-to-use format. Among comments on evaluations are, “I would recommend this course to everyone employed in the human services field!” and “This course is packed with useful information that I know will assist me in providing better services to families and children we serve.”