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Woman in a Coma Giving Birth Highlights a Type of Sexual Abuse We Don’t Talk About Enough

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Juliette Virzi, The Mighty’s mental health editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Update: On Thursday, Feb. 7, Hacienda HealthCare’s board of directors announced it would close its doors, according to NPR. The announcement came after Arizona Governor Doug Ducey said the state would pursue charges against the facility as well as require additional oversight. On Wednesday, Ducey had signed an executive order mandating state health and economic departments put practices in place to better protect people with disabilities. 

Update: On Friday, January 18th, 2019 the family’s attorney John Michaels told The Arizona Republic that the rape victim who gave birth at Hacienda HealthCare last month is not in a coma, as news sources had previously reported. He said, “The important thing here is that contrary to what’s been reported, she is a person, albeit with significant intellectual disabilities. She has feelings and is capable of responding to people she is familiar with, especially family.”

A woman in a vegetative state gave birth to a baby boy unexpectedly at Hacienda HealthCare, a private care facility in Arizona on Dec. 28, 2018. The woman, who has been in a coma for over a decade, survived a near-fatal drowning 14 years ago. Phoenix police are currently seeking DNA from all male employees at the facility.

“The family obviously is outraged, traumatized and in shock by the abuse and neglect of their daughter at Hacienda Healthcare,” the family’s attorney John Micheaels said in a statement. “The family would like me to convey that the baby boy has been born into a loving family and will be well cared for.”

This story has deep implications for the disability community, a community that society tends to leave out of conversations about sexual assault and abuse.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), people with disabilities are victimized at higher rates than the rest of the population because of factors like having to rely on an abuser for care, lack of education about what is appropriate/inappropriate touching and the reality that a lot of folks with disabilities are not as likely to be taken seriously when reporting sexual crimes.

Karin Willison, The Mighty’s disability editor, said abuse of folks with disabilities is incredibly common. “Every woman I know with a disability has either been sexually assaulted or survived domestic violence,” she said. “Unfortunately, predators take advantage of people they perceive as defenseless and those who have difficulty communicating.”

Many people with disabilities who are non-verbal or have intellectual disabilities may not be able to communicate consent to participate in sexual activity. In a yearlong investigation conducted by NPR, reporters found that people with intellectual disabilities are about seven times more likely to be victims of sexual assault than people without disabilities.

It’s hard to know how many people with disabilities have been sexually assaulted since sexual assaults against people with disabilities often go unreported. The U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Survey found that only 41 percent of people with disabilities who were violently victimized reported the assault. It’s worth noting that the statistics from this particular study don’t include people in care facilities, like the woman at the Hacienda HealthCare facility.

“Many people with disabilities do not report abuse, and when they do, police and social services do not always take them seriously,” Willison said. “Prosecutors may not file charges because they perceive victims with disabilities as less reliable because of differences in how they communicate. This leaves predators free to attack again.”

The #MeToo movement has helped shed light on the prevalence of sexual abuse but hasn’t done much to address the needs of the disability community. This may be related to misconceptions around disability and sexuality, that folks with disabilities do not have sexual desires or engage in sexual intimacy.

“Our nation is very much in denial about how widespread the problem of sexual abuse is — especially when you have a population that does not fit the mainstream criteria as a sexual being,” Kristen Houser, a spokesperson for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, told Vox,

Sexual assault in the disability community may also be under-discussed because of stigmas related to age and sexuality. According to the Institute on Disability, approximately 41 percent of the disability community is over the age of 65. Those who are older tend to be desexualized by mainstream culture and left out of conversations regarding sexual topics. Elder abuse, behavior from a caretaker that violates trust and can include sexual abuse, is more common than physical abuse in long-term care facilities.

So what can we do to protect folks with disabilities from experiencing abuse? Willison believes it involves legislative action.

“The most important change we can make is to pass the Disability Integration Act (DIA) and advocate for more funding for home and community-based services,” she said.

If passed, the act would support people who need Long Term Services and Supports (LTSS), many of whom are often forced into institutions and deprived of their basic civil rights.

In addition to the DIA, Willison believes part of the problem could be solved by paying home care and nursing home workers fair wages.

The wages are so low for these positions that they can’t get good employees and will hire almost anyone. This attracts abusers, and employees who are barely scraping by may fear being fired if they report abuse or neglect.

We need to include folks with disabilities in conversations about sexual violence as well as take measures to protect them from experiencing this abuse and believe them when they report.

If you or someone you know have experienced sexual assault and live with a disability, there is help available. Head to RAINN’s Sexual Abuse of People With Disabilities page for resources and support.

Header image via Maria Hechanova Facebook page

Originally published: January 10, 2019
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