Published: July, 2015| Shirley Paceley, Teresa Tudor, Edited by Stephanie Avalon

People with disabilities experience violence at an alarming rate; however, many victims report they do not have access to justice.  

Finding justice for victims with disabilities has been a focus of the Illinois OVW Arrest Grant. Through this initiative administered by the  Illinois Family Violence Coordinating Council (IFVCC), Illinois has created the only known statewide model protocols for law enforcement and prosecutors for working with victims with disabilities.

Prevalence

People with disabilities experience violence more often than people without disabilities according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  People with disabilities are 3 to 10 times more likely to experience violence than people without disabilities. One study by Joan Petersilia, Ph.D. in 2000, “When Justice Sleeps: Violence and Abuse Against the Developmentally Disabled” found approximately 5 million crimes were committed against people with developmental disabilities in comparison to 1.4 million child abuse cases and 1 million elder abuse cases. Despite this prevalence, victims with disabilities often are denied justice because law enforcement and/or prosecution have assumed erroneously that disabilities prevent victims from being credible.

 As long as the witness understands the importance of telling the truth, and is able to communicate, the witness should be found competent to testify. This is true even if the witness is not capable of speech, provided he or she can communicate by other means.

PEOPLE V. SPENCER, 119 ILL.APP.3D 971, 75 ILL.DEC.479, 457 N.E.2D 473 (1ST DIST. 1983)

The Committee

To overcome such assumptions, the “Responding to Victims with Disabilities” Committee of the IFVCC, was formed to develop specific protocols.  The committee included people with disabilities as well as representatives from law enforcement, prosecution, Attorney General’s Office, Illinois Department of Human Services, Illinois Adult Protective Services, Blue Tower Training, Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, and IFVCC.  Everyone on the team had expertise to share and the people with disabilities serving on the committee really brought the issues to life with their experiences and suggestions.  

Recent Case Highlights Successful Use of Protocols

The protocols were developed based upon existing successful strategies and the experience and expertise of law enforcement and prosecutors.  A recent sexual assault case in Illinois highlights core elements of the protocols and demonstrates that law enforcement and prosecutors can help victims with disabilities get justice.  Brenda Claudio, Assistant State’s Attorney, with the Kankakee State’s Attorneys Office prosecuted the case involving a victim with an intellectual disability and a severe speech impediment.  

Claudio said the case required extensive preparation time. Communication, due to the victim’s speech impediment, was also a barrier.  Claudio began by filing a motion with the Judge for an interpreter.  The Judge would not allow a family member, but did allow an interpreter who helped prepare Melissa, (not her real name) to communicate with an audiovox.  Melissa and the interpreter spent lots of time with the communication device.  There was a competency hearing to show she understood about telling the truth and could testify.  Claudio also had four expert witnesses, so that took preparation time, too.

“I had to learn how she processed things and how she learned and then get that information to the jury.”  

Prosecutor Brenda Claudio

Two experts conducted IQ testing and also had interactions with her; one saw her on an ongoing basis and was able to clearly portray what she could and could not do. The testimony demonstrated how she learned and the fact that telling her something one time was not sufficient for her to understand. This was critical because the defense’s theory was that Melissa understood sexual relations because her mother had talked with her about it once.  Claudio believes the evidence was compelling because the experts gave consistent testimony along with the basis for their opinions.

“I wanted her voice to be heard. She had the right to be in court; to tell her story; to be accommodated. The detective helped with transportation as that was a barrier for the family.  I think it helped that we presented all of the expert witness testimony before Melissa testified. The jury had a picture of her abilities and disabilities before they met her. Seeing and hearing from Melissa made all of the difference in the world. Her voice was heard.”

Prosecutor Brenda Claudio

The biggest challenge for Claudio was making sure she asked Melissa the right questions and presented a clear picture of the victim. Claudio describes the victim’s experience with the criminal justice system as a victory for victims with disabilities.  She emphasized the importance of getting to know the person, his/her disability, and what supports he/she needs to communicate well. “Developing trust with the victim is also important,” she said. Training on the protocols helped to motivate Claudio to get justice for Melissa, whom she described as innocent and obedient. Her successful prosecution made Claudio feel really good. “It was very rewarding,” she said, adding “I hope that Melissa can feel safe and move forward now and that her family can help her adapt to the changes that have happened.”

The Illinois protocols were designed to be an added support for law enforcement and prosecutors and promote successful outcomes like the case prosecuted by Claudio. The protocols provide guidance, but are best utilized when law enforcement agencies and prosecutors make adaptations to fit local needs and resources.  

Training Teams

To support the implementation of the protocols, training teams were put together and five “Training of Trainers” sessions were held in regions across the state. Local FVCC Coordinators were then responsible for implementing the training in their respective circuits. Each circuit could adopt the model protocol in its entirety or make adaptations for their circuit. The training and implementation piece has been completed in some circuits, and is in process in others. Developing protocols is not a one-time task, to be effective there will need to be revisions made over time based on specific experiences of law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and victims with disabilities.

Training Team: Front Row: J. Hadley Ravencroft, M.S., Mary Suggs, self-advocate. Back Row: Lieutenant Portman, Princeton Police Department; Teresa Tudor, Public Service Administrator, IL Department of Human Services; Diane Michalak, Assistant States Attorney DuPage County; Shirley Paceley, Director, Blue Tower Training; Rich Schardan Retired Chief, Maryville Police Department, and Linda Bookwalter, Executive Director, Stopping Woman Abuse Now.

The Model Protocol for Law Enforcement and Prosecution: Responding to Victims with Disabilities Who Experience Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence and the related training materials are available online. Readers are encouraged to adapt them for use in their own jurisdictions.

For more information about these model protocols, please contact Shirley Paceley at  spaceley@maconresources.org