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Headshot of Kendra KuehnBreaking Silos and Building Networks: Supporting Adults with Disabilities

by Kendra Kuehn, National Adult Protective Services Association

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, people with disabilities make up 19% of the U.S. population and face a higher rate of victimization. Vera notes these same victims often face significant barriers to accessing services and are largely absent from the public discourse. As Adult Protective Service (APS) workers know well, most of this abuse is by intimate partners, relatives, and other trusted individuals.

APS addresses a specific subset of victims with disabilities. The Voluntary Consensus Guidelines for State Adult Protective Services Systems developed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Administration for Community Living recommends that states develop criteria for the eligibility of adults (18+) who are vulnerable. It is important to note that “most elders and adults with disabilities successfully manage their own lives and are capable of providing for their own care without assistance. They are not automatically defined as ’vulnerable adults‘ simply because of age or disability” (ACL Voluntary Consensus Guidelines for State APS Systems, 2016). Today we are going to look at specific programs and organizations across the nation that address or support people with disabilities who have been victims of abuse, neglect, and exploitation. As in all APS work, a key theme is collaboration and support between organizations and agencies.

At the federal level within ACL, the Administration on Disabilities (AoD), led by Commissioner Julie Hocker, oversees programs and grants working to increase the independence, productivity, and community integration of people with disabilities nationwide. One such program is the Protection and Advocacy System. The 57 state and territorial Protection and Advocacy Agencies (P&As) are dedicated to protecting the rights of people with disabilities and their ability to live independently. P&As were established in 1975 under the Developmental Disabilities Act. These agencies investigate both individual complaints and larger systematic issues. APS programs can build a relationship with their state’s P&A to foster collaboration and understand each agencies process. Not only are these relationships helpful in promoting education but provide support if conflicts between the two systems process and practices come up. Additionally, P&As engage in priority setting with input from the disability network and community agencies. Get in touch with your state’s P&A to build a relationship and share feedback with each other. To learn more about P&A’s, view the recent APS TARC webinar on the subject.

States are also engaging in collaboration and efforts to help people with disabilities served by APS. Massachusetts Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC) is the APS entity serving adults with disabilities ages 18 to 59 in the state of Massachusetts. Among their many collaborations, a State Police Detective Unit (SPDU) is assigned to DPPC and reviews all abuse reports to the hotline to determine which ones include criminal activity. These cases are referred to the appropriate District Attorney’s office and are tracked by the SPDU. The Unit also provides training around the state on recognizing and reporting abuse as well as what to do and what not to do when a crime against a person with a disability is suspected. Collaboration such as this work at DPPC can help inform both APS and law enforcement on how to improve casework and train others. For more Massachusetts based efforts, see the July blog on DPPC’s work in creating a Sexual Assault Response Unit for people with disabilities using a trauma informed approach. DPPC is also starting a new grant to help people with intellectual or developmental disabilities recognize, respond to, and report abuse. We look forward to learning from this endeavor.
In other states, work has happened on the legislative front. Nevada is the most recent state to expand its eligible population to include people with disabilities ages 18 – 59. The new Adult Protective Services has been underway since July 1. See our discussion about this new effort in the June blog. Legislation supporting crime victims may also benefit people with disabilities served by APS in pursuing prosecution. This year in Pennsylvania a number of bills around crime victims rights were passed including allowing statements made outside of court by a victim with an intellectual disability or autism to be admissible if the evidence is relevant, a judge deems content and circumstances are reliable, and the victim is not otherwise able to testify in person (42 Pa.C.S. § 5991 – 5993). Maine has a similar statute in relation to certain testimony (15 M.R.S. § 1205). Other states have agencies and organizations that continue to work on recommendations to improve statutes. The Arizona Developmental Disabilities Planning Council is composed of individuals with disabilities, family members, professional stakeholders, and appointed state agency representatives. In 2019 the Council issued a legislative regulatory and recommendations report regarding sexual abuse of people with developmental and other disabilities. Their recommendations largely revolve around the continuing need for training and education about items like mandatory reporting and how APS works. The Council highlights laws, such as Pennsylvania and Maine’s, that increase access to the judicial process. Such tools may help increase the ability of victims of abuse to move forward with cases where they would have previously faced barriers.

Most importantly, APS programs must be aware of partner agencies, organizations, and networks within their community. As mentioned above these may include federally funded agencies or state and local law enforcement. In California the Silence = Violence network was created to address abuse of people with disabilities and older adults. The agencies, advocacy organizations, and survivors prioritize breaking down silos and building towards goals together. A new national convening to build a network addressing sexual assault victims with disabilities was held prior to the Bridges to Justice conference. Contact NAPSA to get connected. At a very local level organizations, such as The SAFE Alliance in Austin, Texas provide accessible resources for all. SAFE provides a variety of trainings and educational programs for both adults with disabilities and professionals. As part of a federal grant SAFE developed cards outlining tips for working with people with disabilities who have experienced abuse. The cards are based on values of trauma informed care with art by people with disabilities (find them here). Partnerships within your community can help increase awareness and education around the impact of abuse on people with disabilities.

Want to learn more?

  1. Watch the APS TARC webinar on Protection & Advocacy Agencies and what they do.
  2. Find your state’s Protection & Advocacy Agency.
  3. Discover research, tip sheets, and training recommendations at the End Abuse of People with Disabilities resource site. Add your program to the resource list.
  4. Learn more about what is happening internationally at the United Nations.

Have a program or best practice you want to share? Let us know!
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