Childhood Sexual Abuse: What Rehabilitation Counselors Need to Know

By Orange, Leo M.; Brodwin, Martin G. | The Journal of Rehabilitation, October-December 2005 | Go to article overview

Childhood Sexual Abuse: What Rehabilitation Counselors Need to Know


Orange, Leo M., Brodwin, Martin G., The Journal of Rehabilitation


Individuals with disabilities are at greater risk of sexual abuse. This includes both people who have congenital disabilities and those with acquired disabilities. Contrary to popular belief that young people with disabilities are protected from abuse and exploitation, there is evidence that they are, in fact, at increased risk for sexual abuse and maltreatment. In a British Columbia (Canada) survey of 16,000 high school students, 38% of those students with disabilities reported having been sexually abused or assaulted, compared with 17% of those without disabilities (Murphy, 1995). The fact that youth who have disabilities are at a higher risk for sexual abuse indicates that this area needs exploration by the rehabilitation counseling profession.

Definition of Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is defined as being forced, threatened, or deceived into sexual activities ranging from looking or touching to intercourse or rape. Child abuse has been defined in the literature to include any act of commission or omission that endangers or impairs a child's physical or emotional health and development. It may be evident by an injury or series of injuries appearing to be non-accidental in nature and which cannot reasonably be explained. The most frequent forms of child abuse are physical abuse, emotional abuse or deprivation, and sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse of children involves someone too young to give informed consent but who has been involved in a sexual act. Exploitation of an individual who lacks adequate information to recognize such a situation or who is unable to understand or communicate (i.e., the child with a mental or physical disability) is also considered sexual abuse. This kind of abuse is a violation of the whole person and is not restricted to only a sexual act. It results in indignation and an overwhelming sense of violation and invasion that can affect the victim in physical, psychological, and social ways. Frequently, the aftermath of the assault or abuse is more severe than the actual event. This is particularly true of people with disabilities who cannot (or do not) access support systems and services that may otherwise be available. There is sexual abuse without touch, as when someone exposes his or her genitals or forces or tricks an individual to exposing his or her own genitals. Another type of sexual abuse without touch involves obscene telephone calls, as when an individual calls and talks about sex (e.g., ways they would like to touch a person's body or be touched).

Primary affects of these crimes may be short-term but in many cases there is irreparable psychological harm done to the victim that can continue into adulthood. The nature of the sexual abuse also makes it difficult to observe and therefore more threatening to report. Professionals who work with people with disabilities need to be able to recognize signs and symptoms of sexual abuse. These symptoms include behaviors, attitudes, psychosocial aspects, and physical manifestations.

Scope of the Problem

It is difficult to estimate rates of sexual abuse among children with disabilities. One reason is that states do not collect data about abused children in the same way. A second reason is that researchers identify disability among maltreated children in different ways. Additionally, many cases of sexual abuse go unreported because these children do not inform anyone, especially when other family members are involved; parents often fear repercussions if the authorities become involved.

Nonetheless, available research has found that children with disabilities are more vulnerable to sexual abuse than children without disabilities. A national study (Crosse, Kaye, & Ratnofsky, 2001) found that children with disabilities were 1.7 times more likely to be abused than children without disabilities.

It is estimated that between 9% and 15% of all children in the United States have a disability; approximately 175,000 to 300,000 children with disabilities in this country are maltreated each year. …

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