Protection from Sexual Assault Continues to Fail for the Disabled

When Jennifer’s mother looked at the belly bump of her 27- year old severely developmentally disabled daughter one morning, she thought, “Oh my god.” Jennifer was pregnant.

We can rewind this story several years back when Jennifer, born with severe mental retardation and bipolar disorder, was admitted to the Sonoma Developmental Center in 2002. She resided there almost full time except for weekends when she visited her mother. 

Sonoma Developmental Center

Sonoma Developmental Center

In 2006, Jennifer accused someone of “touching” her. She had bruises on her body, on her chest, on her arms, and even a bite mark, so her mother authorized morning and evening searches of Jennifer’s person to determine when and how these marks were occurring. A police investigation was opened but later shelved. Instead, Jennifer was moved to a single room with an alarm system on the exterior door. Jennifer’s mother assumed she was now safe.

When Jennifer was put on new medication, Jennifer was not allowed to leave the facility for overnight visits because she needed supervision. So she stayed full time at the Center for several months over the winter. Her mother took her home again the following July, and that’s when she noticed something was wrong with her daughter.

Even though Jennifer’s routine pap smear performed by the SDC’s gynecologist in April turned up normal, Jennifer’s mother requested the staff test her again. This time test results showed Jennifer was twenty-six weeks pregnant.  

Police conducted a DNA test of the Center’s staff and also of Jennifer’s family—Jennifer’s mother’s husband and son-in-law—even though it was clear that Jennifer was impregnated during the winter months that she was kept at the Center full time. But it was far too late to gather evidence of sexual assault. One staff member refused to be tested. Another, a janitor, fled to his native Mexico. 

How did Jennifer’s rapist enter her room if the door was alarmed? There was a second door to Jennifer’s room from a shared bathroom connected to an empty neighboring room. Those doors did not have alarms, and anyone could enter or exit freely.

Jennifer’s story is not an isolated case . Investigative reporter Ryan Gabrielson, writing for CaliforniaWatch.org writes that “California’s board-and-care centers for the developmentally disabled have accused caretakers of molestation and rape 36 times during the past four years.” Because Center policy is to have their female patients on birth control in order to regulate their menstrual cycle, it’s near impossible to tell how prevalent rape occurs, especially when the survivors are too incognizant to report or even understand the violations happening to them. Had Jennifer’s mother not requested that her daughter be off birth control, how long would her rapist have continued to assault her, since the SDC had been inept at recognizing a pregnancy never mind a sexual assault? Jennifer, at 27, had the mental capacity of a child younger than five or six-year old.

Ryan Gabrielson writes:

In the three dozen cases of sexual abuse, documents obtained by California Watch reveal that patients suffered molestation, forced oral sex and vaginal lacerations. But for years, the state-run police force has moved so slowly and ineffectively that predators have stayed a step ahead of law enforcement or abused new victims, records show. […]

Investigating sex crimes against this vulnerable population falls to the Office of Protective Services, a unique police force that operates round-the-clock in these institutions.

But the detectives and patrol officers have been unprepared to undertake such cases, internal case files show. The records indicate officers have lacked the skills to competently question sex abuse victims, particularly the developmentally disabled.

For more information on how you can protect loved ones, please visit these resources: National Disability Rights Network ; Disability Rights Advocates

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