The Sexual Assault Epidemic No One Talks About People with intellectual disabilities are the victims of sexual assault at a rate seven times higher than those without disabilities. But this epidemic receives little attention.

The Sexual Assault Epidemic No One Talks About

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We've been hearing a lot lately about sexual assault and harassment, and today we're going to tell you about a group of people that has one of the highest rates of sexual assault of any group in America. And it's hardly talked about at all.


We're reporting on people with intellectual disabilities. We want to warn you that we'll be hearing about things in this story that may be disturbing to some listeners. NPR investigative correspondent Joseph Shapiro has our report.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Pauline's red hair falls to her shoulders. She wears stylish copper-colored glasses. She's 46. She's a woman with an intellectual disability. She wanted to tell her story on the radio. She says she hopes it will help other women.

PAULINE: Don't be scared. When you get abused, tell the police. Police will help you.

J. SHAPIRO: When you get abused, call the police, she says. She's nervous.

PAULINE: Take a deep breath.

J. SHAPIRO: Take a deep breath, she tells herself. And she does. And then she tells the story of the night she was raped.

PAULINE: The two boys took advantage of me. I didn't like it at all.

J. SHAPIRO: They took what?

PAULINE: They took advantage of me.

J. SHAPIRO: Took advantage of you. And did anyone try to stop it?

PAULINE: I tried tell mommy.

J. SHAPIRO: I tried to tell mommy, she says. The woman Pauline called mommy was a caregiver. She'd lived in the woman's home for more than 20 years.

PAULINE: Tell her, call the police.

J. SHAPIRO: I met Pauline during a yearlong reporting project talking to people about the high rate of sexual assault of women and men with intellectual disabilities. We're using just her first name because she's a rape survivor. NPR reviewed hundreds of cases of sexual assault. We looked at federal and state data. We read court records, followed media accounts. We talked to victims or guardians, family, staff and friends. We found there's an epidemic of sexual assault against people with intellectual disabilities, that these crimes go mostly unrecognized, unprosecuted and unpunished. One frequent result - the abuser is free to abuse again. The victim gets victimized over and over.

ERIKA HARRELL: It's not surprising because they do have that high level of victimization. That high vulnerability is just reflected in our numbers.

J. SHAPIRO: That's Erika Harrell. She's a statistician at the U.S. Department of Justice. She writes an annual report about crime against all people with disabilities. NPR asked her to break out her unpublished data about sexual assault and intellectual disabilities. And she came up with stunning numbers.

HARRELL: It was seven times higher than the rate for persons with no disabilities.

J. SHAPIRO: People with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at rates at least seven times the rate for other people. And that's almost certainly an undercount because those numbers are from household surveys of people 12 and older, and they don't count people living in institutions, where Harrell says research shows people are even more vulnerable to assault, or in group homes.

NANCY THALER: If this were any other population, the world would be up in arms. We would be irate, and it would be the No. 1 health crisis in this country.

J. SHAPIRO: That's Nancy Thaler. She runs state programs in Pennsylvania. She wasn't surprised by the numbers obtained by NPR. She's been in this field for more than 40 years in top state, federal and national association jobs. She's a parent, too, of an adult son with an intellectual disability.

THALER: Folks with intellectual disabilities are the perfect victim.

J. SHAPIRO: She's seen how they become easy and frequent victims.

THALER: They are people who often cannot speak, or their speech is not well-developed. They are generally taught from childhood up to be compliant, to obey, to go along with people.

J. SHAPIRO: Intellectual disability is the preferred term now for what was once called mental retardation.

THALER: Because of the intellectual disability, people tend not to believe them, to think that they are not credible or that what they're saying they're making up or imagining. And so for all those reasons, a perpetrator sees an opportunity - a safe opportunity to victimize people.

J. SHAPIRO: Most rape victims in general are assaulted by someone they know, not by a stranger. But the data from the Justice Department found that people with intellectual disabilities are even more likely to be sexually assaulted by someone they know. And those assaults happen any time of day. Half take place during the day. It just shows that people with intellectual disabilities are vulnerable everywhere - at home, at school, at work, in public.

PAULINE: Morning, morning.

J. SHAPIRO: I met Pauline, the woman who wanted to tell her story, at a busy day program for adults with intellectual disabilities in northeastern Pennsylvania.


J. SHAPIRO: They spend the day here, get meals. They socialize and do some work for minimal pay. First up in the morning in a big, open room is exercise to the exercise video played on a big screen against the wall.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: All right, to the beat - get ready to the beat. Let's go. Hey.

J. SHAPIRO: There are nine adults in a row moving their arms and bodies to the music. A woman in a wheelchair scoots back and forth. Pauline smiles while she does a steady cha-cha step.

PAULINE: I like any kind of music. I like Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross. I like any kind of music. They play music. I'll dance to it. I like to dance.

J. SHAPIRO: Pauline lives in a group home now with three other women in a one-level red brick house with white columns. It was getting close to dinner time when I went to see her there. Pauline set the table and showed me around the house and the yard.

PAULINE: That's the backyard right there, too.

J. SHAPIRO: That's a nice view. Do you know what kind of trees these are?

PAULINE: Big trees like that, I say.

J. SHAPIRO: Big trees - (laughter) yeah, they are.

When Pauline was raped in February of 2016, she was living with her caretaker, a woman named Cheryl McClain, and that woman's extended family. Pauline had lived with McClain, the woman she called mommy, for half of her life. The family had a house in Brooklyn and another house in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. That's where the rape happened.

These details come from the police complaint. Pauline was raped by two boys in that family. The boys were just 12 and 13. McClain told police one was her foster child. The other, she said, was her adopted son. The two boys confessed right away to police that they raped Pauline, that she told them repeatedly to stop. And the police complaint says the 13-year-old had been accused of assaulting Pauline just days before at their house in New York. He spent four days in a juvenile facility and then was released back to the family.

There was another twist in the case. Cheryl McClain was charged, too. It was McClain who called the police in Pennsylvania that night. But after the boys were charged with the rape, she seemed to have second thoughts. Police say she pressured Pauline to retract her story, and McClain taped herself. NPR obtained a partial transcript in the police complaint. McClain tells Pauline, if you accuse the boys, you can't live here anymore. And here's a quote. McClain says, "so you broke up a happy home, you know? It's nonsense." She blames Pauline. She says, even though I know they started with you first, a lady has to say no. She has to mean no. She tries to get the woman with an intellectual disability to say that she'd enjoyed sex with the boys. On the tape, McClain tells Pauline, you said you liked it at first, right?

McClain and Pauline had lived together for more than 20 years. They were like mother and daughter. Pauline says McClain could be nice but also mean, that McClain would yell at her.

PAULINE: Yeah, used to call me names, call me stupid, retarded.

J. SHAPIRO: McClain denies she ever mistreated Pauline.

PAULINE: Because of the boys and stuff - said, it's your fault.

J. SHAPIRO: Pauline has learned to reassure herself that it wasn't her fault.

PAULINE: It's not your fault.

J. SHAPIRO: She said it was your fault.

PAULINE: Mmm hmm.

J. SHAPIRO: How did that make you feel?

PAULINE: Angry inside.

J. SHAPIRO: The night before the juvenile court hearing, McClain took Pauline, the rape victim, to the office of the public defender representing one of the boys, the rape suspect, and told Pauline to change her story. This is in the police complaint. The next day in court, Pauline was upset and agitated. She said she didn't want anybody to go to jail. But Pauline did not change her story that she'd been raped. That's when state officials in Pennsylvania stepped in.

Most people with an intellectual disability have a mild disability. Often they live with parents, or they live on their own with an informal network of caregivers. That's what Pauline had in New York. There's another system where people get care from the state, programs that pay for where they live, to help them find a job or go to a program during the day. There are long waiting lists in Pennsylvania and most states. But because Pauline was in crisis, she got into Pennsylvania's program right away. She was removed from McClain and that family where she'd lived half her life and moved to this new group home with just the clothes she was wearing.

Were you happy right away? It must have not been easy.

PAULINE: The first day, I wasn't happy, but then I got used to it. It took me a while.

J. SHAPIRO: The first day, you weren't happy.

PAULINE: Yeah, I was scared.


Scared, she says. The boys were sent to a state treatment center for juvenile offenders. Prosecutors dropped six felony charges against McClain, including intimidation of a witness. And in June, she pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges, including giving false information to police. She was fined $15,000 and put on probation for two years. McClain told us that she loves Pauline and wants her to come back to the home in Brooklyn. Pauline wants to stay in her new house in Pennsylvania.

So is it better for you living here?


J. SHAPIRO: Tell me why. What's better?

PAULINE: Because I feel safe. I feel happy. The staff take good care of me. I'm really happy here.

J. SHAPIRO: This group home is run by the Arc of Northeastern Pennsylvania. They do advocacy and provide services - the group home, the day program - for people with intellectual disabilities. Staff took Pauline to doctors. She's got a new pair of glasses - the stylish coppery orange ones. She can see the TV now. Pauline says she gets to keep money from her Social Security check and from her job now, that she goes shopping and picks out her own clothes for the first time. McClain says she did those things when she lived with her, too. There was one more thing Pauline wanted to show me - the pictures from her wedding.

PAULINE: I have a beautiful wedding dress. It's white, and you also - it's, like, a thing you put around your hair.

J. SHAPIRO: A thing you put in your hair, like a veil.


J. SHAPIRO: When Pauline was living with Cheryl McClain, she met a man at their church, a man with an intellectual disability.

Who's David?

PAULINE: My husband.

J. SHAPIRO: Pauline says McClain told her if she wanted to be with David, they'd have to get married. The wedding four years ago was at the church - Pauline in the white dress, David in a dark tuxedo. There was a white wedding cake with red rose petals. David moved into McClain's house in Brooklyn and into a room with Pauline.

What does that mean, to have a husband?

PAULINE: He really loves me so much. That's when you feel special.

J. SHAPIRO: David makes her feel special. But now miles apart, she's in Pennsylvania; he's in New York. They talk on the phone most nights. On the dresser in her bedroom, there are pictures of David and the cards he sends - birthday cards, holiday cards, romantic cards. He signs them with his first and last name. Pauline misses David's kisses. She misses him in her bed. But David lives with her old family in Brooklyn. He depends upon Cheryl McClain. Pauline won't go back there. That's where she was raped. She wants that love, romance and her marriage. But like so many other adults with intellectual disabilities, a history of rape gets in the way. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

MCEVERS: And tomorrow on Morning Edition, Joseph reports on sex ed classes for people with intellectual disabilities.


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