Alan Corbett, Chair of the Training Committee of the Institute of Psychotherapy and Disability, on the victims of sexual abuse with intellectual disabilities


The word ‘forensic’ relates to the application of scientific methods and techniques to the investigation of crime. My work as a forensic psychotherapist should then logically be concerned with victims and perpetrators of crime. Because, however, most of my clients tend to be people with an intellectual disability, crime and the criminal justice system are remarkably absent from their narratives. People with intellectual disabilities in Ireland who have experienced crime tend to find themselves in a curious no man’s land, where the laws in place to protect society are deemed, informally, not to apply. To paraphrase Orwell (1945), ‘All people are equal, but some are less equal than others.’

Since 2007 I have provided input on the Garda Specialist Interviewing course, training members of the gardaí (and some social workers) with the skills necessary to interview victims of alleged sexual crime who are deemed vulnerable, either because of their age (being children) or cognitive status (having an intellectual disability or other forms of cognitive impairment). I provide teaching on the aetiology, symptoms and manifestation of intellectual disability, and also assist in the role play section of the course, where candidates are monitored on their practical skills in conducting interviews that serve to provide credible evidence while not re-traumatising the alleged victim. The course has been developed by members of the gardaí who are appalled by the high vulnerability most people with disabilities have to sexual abuse. In Ireland the development of systems responding to the abuse of people with intellectual disabilities has been slower than in the UK. McCormack et al. (2005) undertook a longitudinal study into allegations of sexual abuse in a large Irish community-based service, concluding that the incidence of confirmed episodes of sexual abuse of adults with intellectual disabilities was higher than previously estimated.

It is in the United States that the most thorough research has been undertaken. Valenti-Hein and Schwartz (1995) found that more than 90% of people with intellectual disabilities experience physical or sexual abuse at some point in their lives. They also found that only 3% of sexual abuse cases involving people with intellectual disabilities get reported. Of similar concern are the findings of Sobsey (1994), who concluded that adults with intellectual disabilities are at risk of being physically or sexually assaulted at rates four to ten times greater than other adults. He further stated that women with disabilities are raped, assaulted and abused at rates more than two times greater than those of women without disabilities. Women with disabilities (including physical and intellectual) are more likely than other women to experience violence that is more severe and prolonged, and to suffer more serious and chronic effects from that violence.

I have been impressed by the calibre of the Garda course participants (all of whom have to pass a series of qualifying exams to get onto the course) and their real commitment to ensuring that justice is made accessible to all victims of crime, regardless of levels of intelligence. And yet, the course has highlighted a disturbing gap between the lives of people with disabilities and the workings of the criminal justice system. The level of Garda capacity to interview victims of crime who have intellectual disabilities is rising, along with an increase in their visibility in the lives of people with disabilities (a course requirement is that officers have a placement in a disability setting). The quality of evidence being presented before the courts is incrementally higher than it was before the course was started. But why do so many settings working with people with intellectual disabilities fail to make use of this? Why are so many organisations charged with the care of people with intellectual disabilities reluctant to contact the gardaí when an act of sexual abuse has been disclosed or uncovered?

It is clear that there remains a siege mentality in many residential and day-care services for people with intellectual disabilities. A common response to a disclosure of sexual abuse by someone with a disability is still to either deny or minimise. In my role as consultant to a range of clinicians working in Irish institutions, I have been shocked by the continuing tendency of many settings to avoid thinking of an incident of sexual abuse as a crime. Language is misused to label crimes as ‘inappropriate sexual behaviours’, thus negating the need for a crime to be brought to the attention of the gardaí. The phenomenon of settings dealing with sexual crimes ‘in house’ is a shocking denial of the traumatising impact of sexual abuse upon the victim. Language is important. Describing a crime as ‘inappropriate’ reduces the importance and the impact of the act. It is incumbent upon us not just to consider the inequity of victims’ experiences being misdescribed, minimised or denied. A crime is a crime, regardless of the intellectual functioning of the victim.

I urge all readers of this piece to question the existing system in which the definition of whether an abusive act is criminal or not is dependent in any way on the alleged victim’s disability. To apply a different response to a crime because of the victim’s level of IQ is to enact a form of apartheid by which people with intellectual disabilities are rendered inferior to those without disabilities. Training members of the gardaí in how to respond more equally and effectively to victims of sexual crime with disabilities is a major step forward in the rights of people with intellectual disabilities. It is, however, in danger of existing in a vacuum, if professionals working with (potential) victims continue to think of an act of sexual abuse as somehow not constituting a crime because the victim or the abuser, or both, have a disability. This is not only of importance for victims of sexual abuse. It affects how we regard and deal with perpetrators of sexual crime. As long as their acts are not regarded as crimes, and are dealt with ‘in house’, they fail to register on any crime statistics, which means that the true scale of sexual crimes perpetrated against and/or by people with intellectual disabilities is never truly known, leading to a societal denial about the real scale of these crimes. It also means that, just as victims fail to get the psychotherapeutic intervention they require, so do their abusers. Treatment is an essential response to any sexual crime, for while the abuser is untreated, the risk of them re-offending can remain high. To fail to treat an offender is to fail future victims.

The history of the sexual abuse of people with intellectual disabilities is a long and shameful one, but it is also largely silent. While we continue to hear and see no evil, we cannot speak of it. Disability organisations need to examine their deep reluctance to report sexual crimes to the appropriate authorities. Conducting an in-house risk assessment or referring the victim to in-house counselling are nowhere near enough, and serve to exacerbate the disproportionately high levels of vulnerability to abuse experienced by all children and adults with disabilities.

Dr Alan Corbett is Chair of the Training Committee of the Institute of Psychotherapy and Disability and was previously Clinical Director at Respond, the CARI (Children At Risk in Ireland) Foundation and ICAP (Immigrant Counselling & Psychotherapy). In addition to his private practice, he is a consultant psychotherapist to the Clinic for Dissociative Studies and the School of Life. He lectures internationally on forensic psychotherapy, intellectual disability and trauma, consults to a number of organisations and has an interest in clinical research.


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