PDAA Urges State Lawmakers to Protect Care-Dependent People from Sexual Abuse
Research has shown that care-dependent individuals, including the elderly, are often targeted for sexual abuse by their caretakers. Holding these perpetrators accountable is especially difficult. Why?
Care-dependent victims face the same types of barriers to reporting that all sexual assault survivors face, including fear, shame, confusion, and the impacts of trauma. They also face unique challenges to reporting sexual abuse due to the circumstances that make them dependent upon others for their care, including physical or cognitive disabilities, mental health and physical health struggles, and others.
Typically, the perpetrator claims the sex was consensual, which in practice obligates the Commonwealth to disprove consent. Unfortunately, many who are care dependent are not able to fully testify or speak to the issue of consent. That means there is no accountability for the perpetrator.
The good news: Both the state House and Senate have passed similar versions of legislation that will help us better hold perpetrators accountable. House Bill 975 and Senate Bill 704, sponsored by state Rep. Carrie Lewis DelRosso (R-Allegheny) and state Sen. Lisa Baker (R-Luzerne) respectively, would expand the crime of institutional sexual assault to protect those who are care dependent. In doing so, the bills would eliminate consent as a defense in such cases, bridging a gap in our current institutional sexual assault law.
Some of the most vulnerable victims who would be better protected under this law are the dependent-care elderly, who depend on assistance from caretakers for essential care and their most basic needs. Elder sexual abuse occurs when the potential abuser feels like he can inflict abuse without any punishments or repercussions. But this dynamic applies to those who are care-dependent, regardless of age. For example, many people with disabilities may not understand or lack information about healthy sexuality and the types of touching that are appropriate or inappropriate. This can be especially challenging if a person’s disability requires other people to touch them to provide care.
Approximately 80% of women and 30% of men with developmental disabilities have been sexually assaulted and half of these women have been assaulted more than 10 times, according to a study cited by the national YWCA.
When a vulnerable adult is sexually abused, it can have long-term, potentially irreversible adverse effects, affecting their physical, mental and emotional health. Unfortunately, it can also be difficult to spot the signs of sexual abuse in vulnerable adults, which could mean the abuse is allowed to go on for longer without the perpetrator being caught. And sexual assaults of the vulnerable occur both in facilities and at home.
The consistent factor is that the care-dependent individuals are vulnerable and at risk from their caregivers because of their vulnerabilities and the power dynamic, including the fact that the care-dependent rely so heavily for so much from their caretakers. And, when a sexual assault occurs, it is too often impossible as a matter of law from disproving consent because the victims are vulnerable and often unable to testify, speak, or describe precisely what happened.
That is why they are targeted.
PDAA has worked closely with Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR) and the bills’ sponsors in drafting and advocating for this legislation. We appreciate PCAR’s dedication and incredible work on this issue.
We urge the General Assembly to send one of these bills to the Governor before they adjourn for the summer. Our most vulnerable victims deserve such protection.
Greg Rowe, Esq., is the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. Prior to becoming Executive Director, Greg served as PDAA’s Director of Legislation and Policy and, before that, as the Chief of the Legislation and Policy Unit in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.