senior in wheelchair, nursing homeDevelopmentally disabled residents are some of the nation’s most vulnerable victims to emotional, physical and sexual violence and neglect in group homes. Many don’t truly understand what is actually happening to them, and they sometimes have difficulty communicating the details about these incidents or are afraid to tell. To make matters worse, their attackers are frequently other residents with disabilities of their own or trusted individuals whom they rely on for care. Because of this, many developmentally disabled victims fall through the cracks, suffering in silence.

Because information about abuse of disabled victims in group homes is largely unknown, the reality of this horror is difficult to evaluate. It is estimated, however, that developmentally disabled adults are between four and ten times more likely to suffer some form of abuse or neglect than their peers who are without disabilities. A recent study by the Disability and Abuse Project revealed that seven out of ten developmentally disabled adults in America report having been physically or sexually assaulted, psychologically abused or neglected. About 90 percent of those who said they had been abused reported multiple occurrences. Unfortunately, less than 40 percent of victims report these incidents to authorities, and fewer than 10 percent of cases reported result in arrest.

Why Are Developmentally Disabled Victims at a Higher Risk for Abuse?

Some of the reasons people with disabilities are more susceptible to abuse include:

  • Predators often perceive developmentally disabled victims as weak, making them easy targets for abuse.
  • Developmentally disabled victims are much less likely to report abuse than people without disabilities.
  • Group home residents with disabilities are often isolated with limited access to advocates, medical or social services representatives, police or family members who can intervene.
  • Victims who are developmentally disabled often possess limited communication abilities or cognitive disabilities that hinder effective reporting of abuse.
  • Even when disabled victims are able to complain about the abuse they have endured, they are often not believed.

Resident-to-Resident Abuse and the Disabled

While abuse of developmentally disabled victims in group homes is often committed by caregivers, other residents are sometimes predators as well. Currently, there are no laws that prevent group home providers from placing individuals with violent tendencies or histories of committing abuse with fragile victims who are unable to protect themselves. When resident-to-resident abuse occurs in group home settings in Illinois, however, group home providers and staff members can sometimes be held liable.

Physical Restraints and Sedation

The Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Code in Illinois is designed to ensure that individuals who have developmental disabilities receive appropriate and humane care in the least restrictive environment possible. Although disabled individuals have the right to be free from restraints except when the use of such tools is to prevent the person from harming himself or someone else, inappropriate use of physical restraints is a common occurrence. With the exception of emergency situations, restraint use requires a written order from a doctor, social worker, psychologist or registered nurse. Unfortunately, care providers sometimes use physical restraints to make caring for disabled victims more manageable. When restraint use is not medically necessary, this constitutes abuse, and caregivers and facilities can be held liable.

Unnecessary sedation is another common occurrence that constitutes abuse. Staffing shortages and inadequate training of caregivers often results in the inappropriate use of sedatives to make resident care more manageable. Since victims with severe cognitive disabilities may not be aware of being unnecessarily sedated, this type of abuse often goes unreported.

Restricting Access to Belongings or Treatment

In some cases, caregivers attempt to control or even punish disabled victims by taking their beloved belongings away, restricting access to daily activities, isolating them from their peers, or withholding medications from them. Such actions can result in emotional trauma that can affect victims for years to come. While this type of treatment may not cause physical symptoms that are easily identified, it is still a form of abuse and violators can be held liable for the damages caused.

Financial Exploitation is a Common Form of Abuse in Group Homes

Many developmentally disabled adults lack the mental capacity to make informed decisions about their money. As a result, they are easy targets for financial exploitation. Under Illinois law, disabled adults have the right to spend their money as they choose, and they are protected against exploitation.

Recognizing the Signs of Abuse in Developmentally Disabled Victims

Since disabled victims are less likely to comprehend or report abuse, it is essential for family members, friends and caregivers to be alert for the signs that wrongdoing has occurred. Common signs to watch for include:

  • Uncharacteristic withdrawal from peers or activities
  • Sudden onset of aggression toward other residents, visitors or staff members
  • Self harming activity
  • Display of fear
  • Physical indicators like unexplained bruising, abrasions, or other injuries
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