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Identifying Abuse of Children with Disabilities


Children with disabilities are abused 1.7 times the rate of non-disabled children.  Why?  Some suggest that it’s more of society’s response to the disability, not the disability itself.  Children are often seen as having less value than other children.  Discipline can sometimes be more harsh and include a lack of respect.  Their reports (if they are able to report) are often considered untrustworthy.  Factors leading to abuse among children with disabilities are the same as those found in the general population, i.e., single parents, teen parents, various levels of stress. Families with children with disabilities can experience additional stressors including: (1) feeling unprepared to “handle” the care of a disabled child, including acceptance of that child as being “different,” (2) having financial or time limits stretched as additional medical/educational activities are suggested, and (3) lacking necessary social supports or networks to work through the many concerns and situations that arise in providing care for this child and the rest of the family. All of these can result in increased vulnerability to abuse.  A child with challenging behaviors or communication difficulties may become a target for abuse.  Children that do not use words to communicate their needs may be more susceptible to neglect. Perpetrators of abuse of children with disabilities, like with typical children, are usually known to the victims.  These could be parents, family members, teachers, etc.  Prosecuting abusers of children can often be difficult.  Children in general are often seen as not being “credible” or “reliable.”

Abuse of children with disabilities is identified mostly the same way for their peers.  Along with physical signs, two primary indicators of abuse are the child’s reports and behavioral changes.  Children with disabilities may exhibit behavioral indicators of abuse that are not
recognized as abusive by their caregivers. Changes in behavior may be attributed to their on-going problems, or inability to communicate appropriately. Injuries resulting from physical abuse may be ignored if a child has visual or physical limitations. If a child has
intellectual limitations, responsible adults may wrongly assume the child is untrustworthy or easily suggestible, especially if the report involves instances of abuse that seem unbelievable or improbable considering the circumstances of the child. Unless a child can communicate what happened, and “be believed,” indicators of abuse for children with disabilities can be more difficult to recognize.

So,how can abuse of children with disabilities be prevented?  One of the major ways is for everyone to recognize that abuse can happen to ALL children.  The goal is stop abuse before it even occurs.  Teaching children personal safety skills to discourage abuse, and making others aware of the child’s knowledge, can greatly reduce the risk of abuse. Recognizing that the child is very dependent on the caregiver, parents should get to know all persons working with the child, and observe interactions. The caregiver is in a position to provide or withhold daily necessities, and the child may have trouble communicating this information to the parent. Since parents as well as other caregivers may be perpetrators of abuse, everyone who has a role in caring for the child with disabilities can participate in prevention training programs as well as programs for early identification and intervention.

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