I was watching an episode of “Law and Order: SVU” this weekend. You may remember from other posts that this particular television show, even among those within the “Law and Order” franchise, challenges me (and often disturbs me) like few others. This episode involved the sexual assault of a young woman with a mental condition.
Sexual Assault and Disadvantaged Groups
In this episode, a young man in an inpatient mental health facility witnesses a female resident being sexually assaulted by a staff member, prompting an investigation by the Special Victims Unit. Their investigation reveals that the assailant isn’t on staff at all. He’s the girl’s uncle, sneaking in disguised as a doctor, using an ID lifted from a staff member. The young woman is 24. He has been raping her since she was 14.
The SVU detectives talk to the young woman about to whom she disclosed the abuse when she was a teenager, and about why nothing was done at the time. It appears to be a case of a family in denial, not wanting to believe that an immediate family member could do something like that. When one of the detectives promises that the uncle will never touch her again, the young woman just laughs and says that there’s no way that will happen.
“Why?” the detective says.
“Because,” the young woman says. “He’s sane and I’m crazy.”
How often does that happen?, I wondered. How often does it happen that someone makes an allegation of sexual assault and the people around them say, “Well, he’s crazy…it’s him imagining things again,” or “She’s retarded…she misunderstood.” or even, like in the some of the New York state group homes that are coming under scrutiny, the caregivers just didn’t give enough of a damn to even call the police even though they knew that they should.
“Reliable Witness” and Sexual Assault
I know that these things happen. I’ve talked to people with disabilities who have told me about abuse and then said, “But I told people and they didn’t do anything, so why should I tell anyone else?”
I also know that there are very good reasons why some people with mental conditions and intellectual disabilities don’t make reliable witnesses when it comes to making sexual assault allegations. Their stories fall apart under scrutiny, or details come out that make authorities suspect that an encounter was actually consensual…even when it still might not have been. People with developmental disabilities specifically may have made an allegation using the wrong terminology but some sort of assault still may have happened.
It can become very sensitive, involved work, to untangle all the threads, and figure out if there’s actually an assault allegation there on which people need to move when the witness seems “unreliable”, particularly if a disability complicates the issue. But it’s especially when a disability complicates the issue that the appropriate professionals need to be brought in, to ensure that the sensitive, involved work is done. The concern should be with ensuring something really didn’t happen before the person is labelled an “unreliable witness” and the case dropped on that basis. These cases can simply too complicated to let that happen, and no one should feel that they’re at a disadvantage at a sexual assault trial because of a disability.
Accessibility in the Judicial System
The judicial system is already a daunting place for people with mental conditions and intellectual disabilities (or both). It’s intimidating, the questions are difficult to understand, the rights of the people involved are difficult to understand and the processes aren’t intuitive. We need advocates to help the judicial system become more accessible for those whose disabilities affect how they experience life and how they communicate those experiences to others – and to mitigate the experience of feeling like they’ve lost before the trial has even begun.
More on sexual abuse of people with disabilities: