Speaking out against abuse
The mission of our abuse prevention and awareness program is to end the silence on child sexual abuse and violence against children who experience speech and language disorders, to improve knowledge and expertise of those professionals who are ﬁrst responders to the abuse of children with disabilities, and to create a network of families and professionals under the common objective of protecting children from violence, abuse, and exploitation.
Child sexual abuse and violence against children are among the most disturbing crimes that frequently happen in our society. While there are spectacular cases of child sexual abuse that hit the news headlines from time to time and raise the issue to public awareness, it is important to keep in mind that child sexual abuse and violence against children are a social reality even outside the spotlight of media coverage. Every eight seconds a referral of child abuse or neglect is made in the United States (1).
As staggering as such numbers are, they will not even reflect the true prevalence of child abuse cases in our society. The estimated number of unreported incidents has to be considered far higher. And statistics will often make us forget that each incidence count represents a human being that may suffer from severe life-long consequences caused by their traumatic childhood experiences. Epidemiological research has shown that child sexual abuse and maltreatment are strongly correlated with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative identity disorder, low self-esteem, propensity to further victimization in adulthood, alcoholism, drug abuse, and various adult psychopathologies, including crime and suicide (2).
All of these facts get an even more disturbing twist when we consider children who are nonverbal or experience developmental or intellectual disabilities. According to the Oregon Department of Education, over 22,500 children in the state of Oregon experience severe speech and language disorders, and over 18,000 children experience intellectual or developmental disabilities (3). Further statistics show that these children are up to three times more likely to experience sexual abuse or maltreatment (4). These children are perfect victims, and there are several reasons why that should be the case.
To begin with, there has been very little attention for creating abuse prevention programs addressing this population. Senate Bill 856, commonly known as Erin’s Law, mandates that students receive age-appropriate instruction to help them recognize and respond to unsafe situations, and to increase awareness of child sexual abuse (5). However, children who are nonverbal or experience developmental or intellectual disabilities are often neglected in this respect, being excluded from this mandatory instruction. There currently exists no comprehensive instruction program to accommodate these children’s learning differences.
When abuse occurs, these children cannot easily report their experience to trusted persons or institutions in order to put an end to it. The diﬃculties exist on many levels. For instance, while typical AAC setups will provide dedicated and easily accessible communication resources for talking about everyday situations, violence- and abuse-related resources are often missing from these setups. While typically developing children can talk freely about their body, bodily functions, sex and relationships, and things or people that hurt them, it is considered controversial to place corresponding age-appropriate vocabulary symbols on AAC systems.
When cases of suspected abuse or violence are investigated, these children cannot easily bear witness of the abuse they experienced, such that their testimony will stand up in court. This is both a practical problem, as these children often do not have access to a meaningful method of verbal communication, and a legal issue, as there are loopholes in the legislation. For that reason, nonverbal children or children with developmental or intellectual disabilities are subject to structural discrimination by the legal and criminal prosecution system, when compared to typically developing children. ‘Structural’ means that this discrimination is not so much due to the perceptions or prejudices of certain individuals, but due to gaps and failures in the system itself.
Additionally, these children will often not receive adequate trauma-informed treatment which they will need to recover from the experienced abuse. Part of the problem is that there are certain myths and misconceptions regarding the ways in which children with developmental or intellectual disabilities experience incidents of abuse or maltreatment. It is often overlooked that these children, because they are unable to articulate their experiences adequately, will suffer in the same way as typically developing children. Another part of the problem is that the trauma treatment of children who are nonverbal or experience developmental or intellectual disabilities requires a multi-disciplinary approach. Psychiatrists and psychologists usually lack training in speech-language pathology, while speech-language pathologists are generally not trained in trauma therapy.
Sources — (1) Computed from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Child Maltreatment 2017, Exhibit 2-A, Screened-in CPS Referral Rates for 2017, Source; (2) A bibliography of relevant studies and surveys is provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Source; (3) Oregon Department of Education, Report of Children with Disabilities Receiving Special Education, 2017, Source; (4) The National Center for Victims of Crime, Crimes against Persons with Disabilities, 2015, Source; (5) Oregon Department of Education: Senate Bill 856, Sex Abuse Prevention Instruction, Source
Adler’s Voice already has a legacy in bringing together people with different experiences and different expertise in the ﬁeld of speech disorders and speech therapy, such as clinicians, speech-language therapists, AAC specialists, parents, and members of community organizations. We perceive it a natural extension of our existing activities to tackle the problem of child abuse and violence against children for the population we serve.
In the course of our program “End the Silence! Speaking Out Against Abuse,” we will create and distribute educational toolkits to parents and professionals. The Parent and Careprovider Toolkit will contain custom symbol sets and communication boards covering topics such as male and female anatomy, ‘private parts,’ and ‘safe touch’ which can be used by parents and caregivers to teach their children about appropriate and inappropriate behavior and touching. We are going to host trainings for families that will provide an introduction into the use of these toolkits and address general strategies of abuse prevention.
The First Responder Toolkit will contain a symbol-based communication book speciﬁc to the areas of physical and sexual abuse. We will provide the clinical training necessary for Toolkit users to become comfortable with AAC and be effective communication partners with nonverbal victims. Our goal is to educate all ﬁrst responders on how to communicate with a victim who experiences a disability by providing appropriate abuse- and trauma-speciﬁc communication tools and associated curriculum necessary to obtain the victim’s statement and testimony.
It is evident, however, that solving the issue of child sexual abuse and violence against children will require a joint effort of all organizations and individuals that are working on behalf of children. Years of siloed efforts have proven largely ineffective. Therefore, we are asking all members of our community, organizations and individuals alike, to help us develop a network of collaboration with the objective of finding a comprehensive set of solutions to reduce the incidence of abuse among children with disabilities; to ensure that every report of abuse is thoroughly and diligently investigated; and to ensure that children with disabilities who have been abused receive the trauma-specific treatment they need to heal. No less important, we are asking you to join us in our effort of advocating for, and creating, policy changes at the state level to provide additional protections for vulnerable populations and to close the loopholes in our criminal statutes that allow abusers to not be held accountable for their crimes.
Instrumental to the success of our program is bringing public awareness to the issue. Meaningful change will not occur until we shed light onto the terrible victimization that this most vulnerable population endures. The issue of sexual abuse and violence against children who experience intellectual and developmental disabilities, especially those who are nonverbal, has been neglected for far too long. It’s time to put an end to the silence. Help us speak out against abuse! Spread the word and sign the petition below! Get our online or printed materials and share them with members of your community! Together we can put an end to child sexual abuse and violence against children!
We believe that every human being deserves to live a life free of violence, abuse, and exploitation. We believe that communication challenges should not be a barrier to safety and protection. We believe that every human being has the right to have their voice heard, to have their reports of abuse or neglect investigated, to gain access to the criminal justice system, and to receive the treatment necessary to recover from the trauma of abuse.
On the basis of these beliefs, we ask our leaders to encourage and work towards a fundamental awareness change in the legal and law enforcement systems regarding victims of crime who are nonverbal or experience intellectual or developmental disabilities. We urge our legislators, law enforcement officers, first responders, and prosecutors to put an end to the structural discrimination that results from the current lack of tools and methods required for these victims to give their statement and testimony, such that it stands up in court. We raise our voice for those who have no voice and demand justice for those who are the most vulnerable in our society.
Click the document thumbnails below to download our updated Resource Guides for victims of sexual abuse and parents of abuse victims. Based on a text provided by the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Abuse, these guides contain helpful first-aid information intended for situations when sexual abuse has occurred. They also include a county-based list of contact information of over 140 support and advocacy organizations throughout the state of Oregon.
If you would like to be a part of our movement to bring awareness to this issue, please print the following petition form and enlist the support of your friends and colleagues. Completed petitions can be mailed to the postal address at the bottom of this page. Thank you so much! Your support is invaluable for the success of our mission to end the silence of child abuse.
To help you spread the word in your community, we offer a box of printed materials including our resource guides, postcards and flyers, stickers and badges, petition forms and other info materials. These boxes will be sent free of charge to any destination in the Oregon. If you are interested in our materials, please send us a message using the contact information at the bottom of this page.