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While the #MeToo movement continues to bring a flood of people speaking out about sexual assault and harassment, a tragic undercurrent goes far less noticed: a swelling tide of vulnerable populations who often don’t—or can’t—speak for themselves.
Earlier this year, NPR reported it had asked the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to calculate the rate of sexual assault among people with intellectual disabilities. The agency concluded people with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at a rate seven times that of people without disabilities.
The U.S. Department of Justice concluded people with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at a rate seven times that of people without disabilities.
As the news outlet noted, that number is almost certainly an underestimate: It didn’t include people living in group homes or institutions.
Why such a high rate?
In some cases, victims literally can’t speak. One California mother told the story of her 35-year-old daughter, Natalie, who can’t form words and requires round-the-clock care for all her needs. Natalie lives with her mom, but used to receive care during the day at a local facility while her mother worked.
Six years ago, her mother realized Natalie had developed pain, but couldn’t figure out the source: “There was something she couldn’t tell us.” After months of tests, doctors discovered a harrowing problem: Natalie had gonorrhea.
“And I’m like, what? No, that’s not possible,” her mother told NPR. “She’s like a baby. She doesn’t even kiss people. I cried all the way home.”
Police investigated, but never learned what happened. Natalie’s sister quit college so she could move home and help her mother care for Natalie full time.
In other cases, people with intellectual disabilities are so dependent on people who care for them in multiple settings, they don’t understand their abuse or they’re afraid to report it.
Even when cases are reported, it was once exceedingly difficult for authorities to prosecute perpetrators. DNA testing is making that easier, and authorities have improved interviewing techniques by adapting methods they’ve use with minors, like asking concrete questions in a nonthreatening setting.
Many victims have loving families who are heartbroken by the abuse, and who need help coping with their own trauma.
For others, having a consistent outsider who looks in on their welfare could provide a good check—and could provide a good friend for those especially in need of companionship and care. Churches can check with local care facilities or nursing homes to find out about volunteer opportunities.
Another vulnerable population that needs protection: minors using social media.
Earlier this month, my local news stations carried a report of police in Greenville, S.C., arresting 45 suspects in a sting operation involving charges of child sex crimes and human trafficking.
The sting was called “Operation Millstone,” and took its code name from Matthew 18:6: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Investigators posed as 14-year-old children in chat rooms, and flushed out predators seeking sex with minors. One suspect indicated he had come to the area from Myrtle Beach, S.C., to kidnap a child and take her back to the beach to sell her.
Police said they didn’t catch everyone they sought, and warned parents: “They are still out there. They are still looking for your kids.”
Sherriff Will Lewis pleaded with parents to monitor their children’s social media accounts, “and I promise you we’ll see less victims.”
It’s advice similar to what Jessica Harris told me in a recent story about parents protecting their children and teens from online pornography.
Harris—who was addicted to pornography as a teenager—said parents should pursue good tools to monitor internet activity. But she also emphasized what she thinks is the most important measure: “You have to be pursuing the heart of your child. If you’re not, someone else will.”