Comprehensive Protection Needed for Individuals with Profound Developmental Disabilities at Risk of Abuse and Neglect

By Pollack, Daniel | Policy & Practice, December 2014 | Go to article overview

Comprehensive Protection Needed for Individuals with Profound Developmental Disabilities at Risk of Abuse and Neglect


Pollack, Daniel, Policy & Practice


Maltreatment of individuals who are profoundly developmentally disabled is a problem that occurs across many settings and is investigated by human service workers and others. The prevalence1 and incidence2 of such maltreatment is unknown. While we know the numbers are considerable, there are no official national statistics. Several reasons account for this. First, there is no singular definition of developmental disability. Second, there is no nationwide uniform reporting system. Third, because of the nature of the victims, reporting is, by definition, aperiodic. Cognitive disabilities, in particular, afford opportunities for miscommunication or lack of communication and may thereby adversely affect a person's legal rights and compromise their safety and functioning.

The National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disabilities Services (NASDDDS) represents the nation's agencies providing services to children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families. Its articulated guiding principles emphasize that "State service systems should be based on the principle that people with developmental disabilities have a right to:

? be treated with respect and dignity;

? be independent and make individual choices;

? participate in family, community, and work life;

? have opportunities to maximize their full potential; and

? receive outcome-based services and supports."3

Some states (e.g., CT, GA, MA, OH, and TN) have a stand-alone department responsible for service and protection functions of individuals with developmental disabilities. In other states, it is a mandate of the department of human services (e.g., AR, CO, IA, ID, IL, NC, ND, NJ, MN, MT, OK OR, SD, UT, and WA).4

Perpetrators of maltreatment against persons with developmental disabilities may be guardians, caregivers, neighbors or acquaintances, health care providers, family members, or other residents. Once again, because there is no uniform national data, we are unsure of their profiles and circumstances. We are uncertain of the exact risk factors associated with individuals who are developmentally disabled as victims of maltreatment.5 The Illinois Department of Human Services, in its Residential Director Core Training, suggests that people with developmental disabilities may be at heightened risk for abuse and neglect because they:

? "May have a variety of care providers and may be reliant on physical assistance;

? Frequently are taught to be compliant to requests from caregivers or other authority figures;

? Are often isolated or living in institutional/group settings;

? Have not typically received training that addresses healthy intimate relationships and appropriate sexual activities;

? May not have been allowed privacy or had the chance to learn about the private areas of the body;

? May have limited communication skills, therefore making it harder to resist or disclose abuse;

? Often are not believed or viewed as credible (p. 6)."6

Clearly, better screening by department of human service investigators is needed to identify people with developmentally disabilities who are subject to abuse and neglect. A number of studies have been done7-all taking a step in the right direction-but additional studies are needed to determine optimal procedures department investigators can take in screening and assessing the incidence and effects of maltreatment events.

I am unaware of any validated tool specifically designed for human service department workers to assess persons with developmentally disabilities who are at risk for abuse or neglect. Whatever tools do exist appear to be adaptations from the fields of child abuse, adult protective services, or domestic violence.

It is time for state social service agencies responsible for serving and protecting individuals with developmental disabilities to develop and implement comprehensive procedures. …

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