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Special needs: Protect your child from sexual abuse

Sexual abuse is every parent’s nightmare, exceeded only by the idea of losing a child completely. The vulnerability of children with special needs makes them the ideal predator target.

A mother of a child with Down syndrome — who we will call Jane — chose to share with SheKnows her family’s experience. Jane’s son was sexually abused by a friend when the boys were 16 years old.

Months passed before he found a way to tell his parents. The predator had groomed him to believe that if he told his parents, they would think he was a “bad boy” and they wouldn’t love him anymore.

On the night the truth emerged, Jane clutched her frightened child and promised him again and again that he was absolutely a good boy, and Mommy and Daddy would never stop loving him.

Jane’s disbelief was as overwhelming as her confusion. This was a family she trusted — a boy her family knew, loved and trusted. Yet, he had committed the ultimate betrayal. Why? How? Hadn’t she done everything right?

Who is at risk?

Children with special needs are perfect prey because they may not understand what is happening, know to speak up or have the communication skills to do so.

“I’ve learned a lot about this dark world,” Jane says. “Our kids with special needs are the most vulnerable and the most abused. This is something that we should want to talk about and learn about.”

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More on risk

  • According to a 2012 report for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a risk factor is if “the parent is unaware his or her child with disabilities is at greater risk of maltreatment and may be unprepared to identify and protect the child from risky situations.”
  • Boys with disabilities or children with disabilities who are in preschool or younger are more likely than children without disabilities to be abused.
  • Children who rely on their caretakers may not understand inappropriate touching.
  • Emotional dependence on caregivers may stop a child with special needs from speaking up.

Protect your child

Jenny Thompson has a daughter with Down syndrome and supports a nonprofit called Step Up, Speak Out.

“A big key… is creating a community of freedom where victims can tell their story and not feel guilt, shame, persecution,” Thompson explains. “[Then] perpetrators are more likely to get convicted.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends:

  • Help others see children with disabilities as valued and unique individuals.
  • Promote inclusion of children with disabilities into everyday life.
  • Develop leadership skills in parents and family members of children with disabilities.

For more information on how to create a safer community, access the report.

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Risk at school

Nearly one in 10 typical students (not just those with a disability) experienced unacceptable sexual behavior by a school employee while in school, according to a 2004 report for the U. S. Department of Education.

Which educators are likely to molest?

  • Any employee or volunteer
  • Well-liked and respected teachers
  • Those with access to students before or after school or one-on-one (e.g., coaches, physical therapists)

What should I look for?

  • Physical signs include:
    • Difficulty walking or sitting
    • Torn clothing, stained or bloodied underwear
    • Pain or itching in the genital area
    • Venereal disease, pregnancy and changes in weight

Behavior red flags:

  • Age-inappropriate sexual behavior (e.g., Jane’s son had taken a picture of his penis)
  • Changes in personality
  • Increased time at school with one adult

What might the molester do?

  • Develop close relationships with students
  • Spend time alone together
  • Spend time before or after school together
  • Spend time in a private space together

If you suspect abuse, the nonprofit Committee for Children provides information on next steps.

More about special needs

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Ways to ensure siblings aren’t overshadowed
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