People With Intellectual Disabilities Are Vulnerable To Sexual Assault, Many Can't Speak To Report Many people with intellectual disabilities can't talk or have difficulty speaking — and are unable to report when they've been raped or sexually assaulted.
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'She Can't Tell Us What's Wrong'

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'She Can't Tell Us What's Wrong'

'She Can't Tell Us What's Wrong'

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We've seen an extraordinary shift in people coming forward with their stories of sexual assault. Now we're going to hear about some victims who are unable to tell their stories.


NPR has obtained unpublished data from the U.S. Department of Justice showing that people with intellectual disabilities face some of the highest rates of sexual assault in the United States. And those numbers are almost certainly an undercount. They do not include people living in institutions and group homes, and they miss the cases where someone can't speak or has difficulty speaking.

A. SHAPIRO: Our investigation found that these women and men are easy prey for predators and that the danger is everywhere, including in places designed to keep those with the most severe disabilities safe.

MCEVERS: NPR's Joseph Shapiro brings us his latest report. It's about 11 minutes long and includes graphic descriptions of sexual assault.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Cathy McIvor has come from far away to see her sister. She's driving down the long road to the state institution where her sister lives at the Rainier School in rural Buckley, Wash. Mount Rainier looms large and luminous on this sunny morning.

CATHY MCIVOR: The grounds, you have to admit, are beautiful here. But those buildings - oh, there she is. Oh, there she is. She's waiting. Oh, there - see; she's happy 'cause she knows it's me.

J. SHAPIRO: The staff here has her sister, Maryann, dressed and ready and waiting by herself outside the one-story cottage where she lives.

MCIVOR: Hi, honey. Can I have a hug? Can I have a hug - OK.

J. SHAPIRO: Cathy McIvor does not want to go inside her sister's building. She does not want to see her sister's room because it's where her sister was raped.

MCIVOR: Like, it's a crime scene. I mean, let's get real here. It's a crime scene for how many years. Who knows? Who will ever know?

J. SHAPIRO: This story is part of an NPR investigation. We found that for people with intellectual disabilities across America, there's an epidemic of sexual assault. Those unpublished crime numbers that NPR obtained from the U.S. Department of Justice - they show that people with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at rates more than seven times those for people without disabilities.

And that high rate is almost certainly an underestimate because often the victim is unable to speak or has difficulty speaking. They can't report what happened. The assault goes unnoted unless it's discovered by accident. At the Rainier School, Cathy McIvor won't go see her sister's room, but Maryann wants to show our producer, Anna Boiko-Weyrauch.

ANNA BOIKO-WEYRAUCH, BYLINE: So Maryann took me by the hand, and we're walking down the hall.

MARYANN: (Laughter).

J. SHAPIRO: Maryann smiles and laughs. She's thin, almost fragile. Her hair is short, her shoulders hunched forward. She keeps her elbows bent and her hands close to her chest and face.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: We're going into a room that says Maryann.

J. SHAPIRO: It's the small room Maryann shares with another woman. Maryann is 58 years old. She's lived here since the 1970s. She wants to show the pink bedspread - it's new since what happened here - and the framed pictures of magnolias on the wall. They're new, too. A staff person who's cared for Maryann for decades took her to the store to buy them.

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: She takes a pillow and rearranges it on her bed. And now she's making a - she's making some signs that I don't understand.

MARYANN: (Laughter).

J. SHAPIRO: Maryann puts both hands just under her eyes and flips them. It's her sign for happy. She doesn't speak words, but the speech pathologist here has taught her a couple dozen signs.

MARYANN: (Laughter).

BOIKO-WEYRAUCH: And now she's grabbing my arm, and we're walking. She's leading me out. She's going to flip off the lights.

J. SHAPIRO: The police report and charging documents explain what it's alleged happened that night in Maryann's room, the night Terry Wayne Shepard was arrested for rape.

UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER: (Reading) On November 13, 2016, at around 0200 hours, I was called out from home by Buckley police officer Voglis to assist on a sexual assault that had just been reported.

J. SHAPIRO: That's the start of the police report read here by an NPR producer. The alleged assault never would have been discovered if it weren't for a young woman named Hunter Shear. She was just 20 years old, and it was just her second week on a new job on the night shift. These details come from the police report.

Around 1 in the morning, she went looking for her boss to get permission to take a break. Terry Shepard had assigned her to the men's wing of the dormitory while he worked the women's wing. Court documents show Shepard had worked at the Rainier School for 34 years, 20 years in this small residence. Hunter Shear told police she walked down the hall and found her supervisor in Maryann's room. And first a warning - this part is graphic.

UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER: (Reading) Shear advised me that Shepard had his pants and underwear down around his knees. Shear advised me that Shepard had the client's legs pinned up to her chest and that he was making back and forth movements like he was having sex with the client.

J. SHAPIRO: Shear told the detective that her shoe squeaked on the linoleum floor. Her supervisor, startled, turned around. He saw her and said, oh, [expletive]. When police arrive, Shear was crying hysterically. Her eyes were red and watery. She was taking short, shallow breaths. Shepard was sitting calmly on a sofa. He said, what did I do? Shepard denied everything that Shear said she'd seen. He denied he'd raped Maryann.

Maryann's sister, Cathy McIvor, got a phone call at her home in Arizona. McIvor told us the story as she was driving to go see her sister about how she tracked down Maryann at the hospital where she was being examined for rape. She called the aide who was with Maryann, and the very first thing the aide said...

MCIVOR: She told me that, I don't know why they've left him on the hall. He's had a prior sexual allegation. So why would they leave this man on a hall with female residents at night on the graveyard shift?

J. SHAPIRO: There were a lot of suspicions about Shepard but never a formal charge against him before. Prosecution documents show that at the police station early that morning, officers wanted a DNA sample from Shepard. Shepard said, you've already got my DNA from another sexual assault allegation. There had been another case several years before. The state's Department of Social and Health Services asked several male staffers including Shepard to submit DNA samples. A spokeswoman for the department says no match was found for Shepard or any other staffer. Shepard and the others were cleared.

The day after the alleged rape of Maryann, the Washington state agency in charge of regulating state institutions, the division of Residential Care Services, or RCS, sent a team of investigators to the Rainier School. And right away they found more complaints against Terry Shepard. That was news to Cathy McIvor. When she was driving to see her sister, I was on the phone with her from my office.

The report says, the resident - so your sister - was taken to a nearby hospital and received a full exam and rape kit.

And I read to her what the investigators had discovered.

Later that day, RCS received another complaint indicating that the same staff member had sexually assaulted a second resident.

MCIVOR: OK, I didn't - that I didn't know. I didn't know that.

J. SHAPIRO: The day after what happened in Maryann's room, state investigators show up. And right away, another woman who lives there comes forward and says, the same man sexually assaulted me. Prosecution documents say this woman, 66 years old, said Shepard hit her in the head, that he touched her breasts and what she called her private spot. Still, she was nervous and very worried that she'd get in trouble just for telling. And that's not all. In the state agency's report, staff at the institution say they think Shepard may have abused two other residents.

And it said one potential victim received, quote, "treats" and, quote, "extra showers" from the staff member.

MCIVOR: Oh, my God, oh, God - and they did nothing.

J. SHAPIRO: Shepard was charged with the rape of Maryann and for taking indecent liberties with that second woman who came forward. He pleaded not guilty. He's scheduled to go to trial later this month. McIvor brought a separate lawsuit - a civil suit for damages - against the state, and that goes to trial next year. Shepard has been in jail awaiting trial. His attorney said the allegations will be fully contested in court.

For the record, the state oversight agency's investigation faulted the Rainier School for failing to protect residents. It says administrators knew there was a problem but didn't take basic steps to prevent abuse. Staff wasn't trained to spot abuse. And when assaults were discovered or suspected, the women got no therapy or support. The institution was forced to make changes - better training of staff, more monitoring of the night shift.

Across the country, we found multiple cases of victims who couldn't speak or say what happened, cases where a suspected rape was uncovered only because of some unexpected proof. In Charlotte, a mother gave her daughter a bath and found bruising. In Missouri, a woman went to the doctor who discovered she was pregnant. And in Boynton Beach, Fla., detectives reopened the cold case of a woman who got pregnant 13 years ago. In June, detectives ran a DNA test, got a match and arrested a man. But in November, a judge threw out the case, said the statute of limitations had expired.

JULIE NEWARD: Here's your oatmeal. Good job.

J. SHAPIRO: In the kitchen of her family home in northern California, Julie Neward is feeding her sister, Natalie, who's 35, her morning oatmeal.

NEWARD: One more. Oatmeal's your favorite, right?

NATALIE: Mmm hmm.

J. SHAPIRO: Neward and her family do pretty much everything for Natalie - feed her, dress her, brush her teeth, put her on the toilet, give her medication all day long.

NEWARD: She talks with my mom with her eyes, and she moans when she wants something.

J. SHAPIRO: Her mother is the round-the-clock caregiver for Natalie. Another sister - a younger sister, Patricia - has moved back home.

PATRICIA: She puts her finger in her mouth when she's thirsty.

NEWARD: So she'll start to moan now 'cause she's hungry for breakfast.

PATRICIA: Or then she'll clap 'cause she's excited for food.

J. SHAPIRO: Patricia put her own life on hold - college and work - to help out. There are no men in the house. Natalie used to get care at a program during the day until about six years ago when at night Natalie was often moaning in pain. She couldn't sleep. She'd sit up on her knees in bed. She couldn't lie down.

ROSEMARY: There was something that she couldn't tell us.

J. SHAPIRO: That's Natalie's mother, Rosemary.

ROSEMARY: We had her multiple times at the doctors. Almost every month, there was something going on with her, and she can't tell us what's wrong, right?

J. SHAPIRO: Doctors treated Natalie for sinus infections, for yeast infections for more than a year, but the pain kept coming back. Natalie's sister Julie picks up the story.

NEWARD: I'll never forget when I got the news.

J. SHAPIRO: One day, a new doctor - a woman - tried a test that no one had thought of before.

NEWARD: It was right after I got off of work - probably left early that day due to traffic, maybe about 4 o'clock. And I was on - was it? - Mission Boulevard.

J. SHAPIRO: Julie got a phone call from the urgent care center.

NEWARD: And they said, Julie, you need to bring your sister Natalie in. And I said, OK, why? She's been diagnosed with gonorrhea. And I'm like, what? No, that's not possible. She's like a baby. She doesn't even kiss people. I cried the entire way home.

J. SHAPIRO: Police did investigate, but Natalie couldn't tell them what happened. The investigation went nowhere.

NEWARD: Come on. We're going to go outside - up, up.

ROSEMARY: Good job. Good job, Natalie.


ROSEMARY: That's Natalie. That's our Natalie.

J. SHAPIRO: No one was ever punished. No one was ever stopped. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.


MCEVERS: You can find the rest of our Abused and Betrayed series on We will continue our reporting next week with a look at how prosecutors are using novel techniques to pursue these hard-to-win cases.


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