by Mary Clayton
My daughter, Jenna, is a 26-year old woman with Down syndrome, and she is also a sexual assault survivor. On June 11, 2013, I discovered bruising just above her pubic hairline. The next day, I took Jenna to her Primary Care Physician who suspected sexual assault. The doctor referred Jenna to the local emergency room, where a team of doctors examined Jenna verifying that she had been victimized. This may sound like a mother’s worst nightmare, but the sad reality is, the greater disillusionment has been all of the many unexpected obstacles we have encountered in our attempts to obtain justice for Jenna since her assault.
Almost three years later, and the fight continues. Time is running out because the statute of limitations is up in June of this year, and Jenna will lose her window of opportunity to get her day in court. As a determined, resourceful, and well-connected professional in North Carolina, I have sought help for my daughter in many ways. I’ve worked with the local police department, the Attorney General’s office and various other state agencies, but to my complete astonishment, the response has been minimal. This journey has been incredibly painful and long. I know Jenna is not alone, and this harrowing experience has created a deep desire to do more to address these seemingly monumental barriers to justice.
Here are some realizations I’ve come to that I hope will fuel the fire for change where change is so desperately needed:
- It is unacceptable to say because Jenna cannot fully identify the circumstances, the suspect or other details of what happened, that the case is unsubstantiated. This allows for no detailed examination of the victim’s rights or what actually happened. We must provide supports and accommodations to help protect crime victims with disabilities.
- In Jenna’s case, it seemed that all involved were acting on behalf of everyone except my daughter, the victim with disabilities. The assumption was that she could not provide credible testimony given her disabilities and that this would hurt the chance of prosecution, even though we had evidence of blunt force trauma via private investigation.
- The process of obtaining justice is lengthy, clumsy and lacks uniform protocol, and the associated expense keeps many from being able to afford the help they need. Most victims would probably give up before they even get started. There is not enough protection for victims with disabilities or legislation to address the type of changes needed to fully support these individuals. There are not enough safeguards in place to discourage the same thing that happened to my daughter from happening to others.
- The media may help with an occasional story, but only a few reporters have dug deeper into Jenna’s story in the attempt to reveal all the layers of this issue and the multiple barriers to justice we have faced.
- An alarming number of people with disabilities are being victimized all across our state of North Carolina, and throughout the country, on a routine basis because of the lack of attention paid to this issue. We need a greater focus on training efforts and oversight to ensure safety of people with intellectual/developmental disabilities (I/DD).
Those outside of the disability community may be surprised to know that people with disabilities are raped or sexually assaulted at four times the rate of those without disabilities. It’s also more common for people with I/DD to experience multiple victimizations throughout their lives, and rarely do these victims get the justice they deserve or the help they need to cope with what happened to them. The sheer amount of trauma this population in particular has had to experience, with no relief or way to process what has happened to them, is hard to fathom.
My daughter and I are thankful for The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability® and their work with families, victims and others. Until people with disabilities are fully included in sexual assault awareness efforts, and the supports are in place to help women, like Jenna, give voice to their own stories of victimization – the violence will continue. This month is Sexual Assault Awareness month, it provides a great opportunity to raise public awareness about sexual violence and educate our communities about ways to prevent it. Sexual violence is a major public health, human rights and social justice issue. As parents, we can partner with organizations like The Arc and NCCJD which are working to bring disability and victim advocates and agencies together to address this issue, and writing publications to provide practical suggestions on how each one of us can be a part of the solution.
We all have a role to play to educate others about the high rate of sexual assault of people with I/DD, and each one of us must do our part to help these victims. Together, I believe we can create real change in the systems serving crime victims with disabilities, as we fight for the day when we can say with a resounding YES! to the question: Will there ever be justice for Jenna?