2013. Vol.4, No.3A, 374-379
Published Online March 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Intellectually Disabled Victims of Sexual Abuse in the Criminal
Justice System
Susanna Niehaus, Paula Krüger, Seraina Caviezel Schmitz
Department of Social Work, Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Lucerne, Switzerland
Email: susanna.niehaus@hsl
Received December 21st, 20 1 2 ; revised January 1 9th, 2013; accepted February 21st, 2013
People with intellectual disabilities face an exceptionally high risk of being victims of sexual abuse and
thereby becoming involved in the criminal justice system. Coping effectively with this system is enough
of a challenge for those without disability, but it is far more difficult for the intellectually disabled. As a
result, greater attention needs to be paid to their needs. From the opposite perspective, dealing with people
with intellectual disabilities is a challenge for experts in forensic and criminal law practice. This short re-
port presents the background, design, and preliminary findings of a study examining how far the police,
judges, prosecutors, forensic-psychiatric experts, forensic-psychological experts, and social workers are
able to ensure that victims with intellectual disabilities experience procedural fairness by taking their par-
ticular needs into account in everyday criminal proceedings.
Keywords: Intellectual Disability; Sexual Abuse; Attitudes; Rape Myths; Criminal Justice System
People with intellectual disabilities suffer from a dispropor-
tionately high exposure to sexual abuse (Bureau of Justice Sta-
tistics, 2012; Schröttle, Hornberg, Glammeier, Sellach, Kave-
mann, Puhe, & Zinsmeister, 2012). Although they naturally do
not form a homogeneous group of persons who are all equally
at risk, there is no longer any doubt within the scientific com-
munity that individuals with intellectual disabilities are more
vulnerable due to an accumulation of personal and social risk
factors. That is, their specific socialization conditions and needs
lead in various ways to an imbalance of power between them
and their environment that greatly increases their probability of
becoming victims of sexual abuse (Peckham, 2007; Rand, 2002;
Schröttle et al., 2012; Senn, 1988; Sobsey, 1994; Trost, 2010;
Walter, 2002). This power gap between offender and victim or
the limited possibility of successfully fending off violence is
considered to be a key mechanism for explaining sexual abuse
(Cossins, 2000; Koss et al., 1994). For people with intellectual
disabilities, the possibility of successfully fending off violence
is limited in many ways. For example, even today, they have
often not received an adequate sexual education and have had
little opportunity to gather sexual experiences (Allington, 1992;
Trost, 2010). As a result, they lack both the ability to differenti-
ate and the language not only to communicate what they want
and do not want but also to report potential abuse (Walter,
2005). A further aspect is that a limited cognitive capacity re-
duces the ability to perceive and appropriately interpret danger
signals (Tyler, Hoyt, & Withbeck, 1998). Because of their re-
stricted ability to grasp situations, they may, for example, not
comprehend the intentions of a potential offender until it is too
late (Senn, 1988). Moreover, negative feedback from their so-
cial environment contributes to low self-esteem, and low self-
esteem makes it harder to set limits (Becker, 1995). In addition,
people with intellectual disabilities generally have less effective
social networks and are highly dependent both economically
and personally on a range of individuals. Finally, through their
more strongly structured daily routines, they are more used to
adapting themselves to externally imposed directives. Such
reduced self-determination also imposes major constraints on
the possibilities of putting up resistance when, in line with
learning theory, they may anticipate that this will lead to nega-
tive reactions from important reference persons (Peckham,
2007; Senn, 1988; Zemp, 2002). In turn, the greater the ease in
overcoming their resistance and their protective mechanisms,
the more attractive they might be from the perspective of of-
fenders. Surveys of offenders have revealed that they select
victims according to their perceived vulnerability (e.g., their
lack of confidence; see Conte, Wolf, & Smith, 1989; Elliott,
Browne, & Kilcoyne, 1995; Shuker, 1980, cited in Longo &
Gnochenour, 1981). Hence, from the perspective of potential
offenders, people with intellectual disabilities might well seem
to be ideal victims—the greater their limitations, the lower the
risk of being reported, charged, and prosecuted for an offence.
If persons with intellectual disabilities have become victims
of sexual abuse, reporting the crime confronts them with a
criminal justice system whose complexity makes exceptionally
high demands on their ability to communicate (Milne & Bull,
1999). Even individuals with no disability are scarcely familiar
with the rules and procedures of the legal system and are often
particularly unable to handle the complexity and otherness of
legal language. And persons only need to have reading difficul-
ties to have less chance of asserting their rights (Inclusion
Europe, 2003). Exclusion becomes even more probable with
increasing disability and a decreasing willingness of the system
to adjust to an otherness in order to compensate the disadvan-
tages that this otherness may entail (Wansing, 2007). This
willingness will probably be even lower the more negative the
attitudes toward people with intellectual disabilities.
However, for many years, the sexual abuse of intellectually
disabled men and women was simply taken to be inconceivable;
and it was correspondingly a long time before research in the
German-speaking countries (compared to, e.g., Australia, Great
Britain, and North America) started to address this field. This
failure to recognize the problem for such a long time probably
relates strongly to social perception processes (Oosterhoorn &
Kendrick, 2001). Numerous studies have shown that attitudes
toward people with intellectual disabilities are mostly negative;
and a vague, deficit-oriented picture of intellectual disability
dominates broad areas of society (e.g., Antonak & Livneh,
1991). Even today, despite fundamental changes for the better,
it is still possible to confirm negative attitudes toward people
with intellectual disabilities (see, for a review, Scior, 2011).
There also seem to be false assumptions about intellectual
disability. In line with Senn (1988), these can be called myths
of intellectual disability. They include, for example, the myth
that intellectually disabled persons are not aware of what is
going on around them or the myth that their supposed unattrac-
tiveness protects them from sexual abuse. Most myths are based
on an infantilization, that is, on the idea that intellectual disabil-
ity rules out being adult (Robey, Beckley, & Kirschner, 2006;
Walter, 2002). The general rape myths are that sexual assaults
are less an abuse of power than the exercise of an aggressive
form of normal sexuality triggered by the attractiveness of the
victim (Burt, 1980; Burt & Albin, 1981; Gerger, Kley, Bohner,
& Siebler, 2007). These combined with the purported protect-
tion of individuals with intellectual disabilities through their
supposed lack of attractiveness result in different myths gener-
ating a way of thinking that makes the sexual abuse of the in-
tellectually disabled seem unlikely. It is conceivable that the
professions involved in criminal proceedings are also not im-
mune to such social perception processes (e.g., Krahé, 2012),
particularly when their members know little about intellectual
disability. In that case, there is also a risk that such myths may
impact on case processing. Evaluating statements and appraise-
ing persons both play a central role in any criminal investiga-
tions and proceedings, and when it comes to the victim, there is
a particularly strong focus on the competence to stand trial and
to testify along with the credibility of that testimony. In this
context, both a deficit-oriented outlook and the acceptance of
widespread myths could have a negative effect for participants
with intellectual disability. Particularly when those involved in
proceedings have little knowledge about intellectual disability,
disability-specific stereotypes may dominate their perceptions
and conclusions.
Although there are legal norms that explicitly take account of
people with intellectual disabilities in criminal proceedings, the
norm of equality before the law depends essentially on it being
implemented by the representatives of the forensic and criminal
law professions (Tag, Schmidt, & Wiesner, 2006). To ensure
that the aforementioned power imbalance, which has already
contributed toward their becoming a victim, does not persist
here as a lack of power to lodge one’s grievance before the
criminal justice system, victims depend on the representatives
of the professional groups involved complying with these
norms and taking their particular concerns and needs into ac-
count. Nonetheless, there is a persistently all-encompassing
deficit orientation and unwillingness on the part of representa-
tives of the legal system to consider the needs of people with
intellectual disabilities and adapt to these needs. This has been
criticized far more strongly in Great Britain, Australia, and
Canada (e.g., Brennan & Brennan, 1994) than in Austria, Ger-
many, and Switzerland. Referring to the Canadian criminal
justice system, for example, Endicott (1992: p. 5) gets to the
heart of the problem of the lack of participation of the intellec-
tually disabled: “All too often a person’s perceived inability to
do some things is translated by legal processes into a finding of
inability to do anything. The law has not demonstrated much
capacity to find ways in which the person’s special needs can
be accommodated so that he or she can participate in ordinary
human activities, including the activity of doing justice in soci-
ety.” Milne and Bull (1999) also criticize an all-encompassing
deficit orientation in Great Britain’s criminal justice system and
point to a failure to take the special needs of people with intel-
lectual disabilities into account—a failure that expresses itself
in, for example, sweeping assumptions about the inability to
testify or also in a well-meant but nonprofessional prompting of
the contents of testimo ny through leading questions.
Any serious effort toward integration cannot be achieved
through an all-encompassing deficit orientation or through an
indifference that tries to ignore individual characteristics. In-
stead, it is necessary to accept the existing distance from the
norm as a fact. Primarily, this requires professionals to think
about how they handle people with intellectual disabilities
when they have to deal with them in their work. An adequate
consideration of special needs requires, in turn, knowledge
about intellectual disability and the associated special difficul-
ties (e.g., in communication) as well as competencies in im-
plementing that knowledge. This additionally assumes a basic
willingness to adjust to otherness. How far these preconditions
can be taken as given in the relevant professional groups in
German-speaking countries was the topic of a research project
launched at the end of 2008 by the Lucerne University of Ap-
plied Sciences and Arts.
One can certainly ascertain an increase in scientific interest
in intellectual disabilities, and there have been a few isolated
studies on the more general problems that people with intellec-
tual disabilities face when dealing with the police (e.g., Bren-
nan & Brennan, 1994), on assessing the credibility of children’s
testimonies as a function of the degree of disability (e.g., Peled,
Iarocci, & Connolly, 2004), and on the quality of the testimony
of people with intellectual disabilities (e.g., Kebbell, Hatton, &
Johnson, 2004). However, to the best of the authors’ knowledge,
no study up to now has systematically investigated the relation
between knowledge, attitudes, and the acceptance of myths, and
examined how these impact on intellectually disabled victims
of sexual abuse, while simultaneously taking into account the
perspectives of all those involved in criminal proceedings.
Therefore, the goal of the present project was to gain a first
description of the situation of adult intellectually disabled vic-
tims of sexual abuse in the criminal justice system.
This article presents a short sketch of the research project
that was based on the mixed-methods design (Mayring, Huber,
Gürtler, & Kiegelmann, 2007) illustrated in Figure 1.
Research Questions and Key Hypotheses
The research project focused on processes in the social per-
ception of adult intellectually disabled victims of sexual abuse
to be found among the professional groups involved in criminal
justice proceedings in Austria (AT), Germany (DE), and Ger-
man-speaking Switzerland (CH) along with the knowledge
these groups possess about intellectual disability (see Block I in
Figure 1). In detail, the project was designed to deliver answers
o the following questions: t
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 375
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Figure 1.
Research design and questions.
1) To what extent are which professional groups involved in
criminal proceedings taught what about intellectual disability
during their (continuing) education?
2) Which information is to be found in the literature recom-
mended to them by their lecturers?
3) What do representatives of the justice system (judiciary
and public prosecutors), the police, psychological experts, psy-
chiatric experts, and social workers know and think about peo-
ple with intellectual disabilities, and how does this impact on
their assessment of case scenarios?
4) How frequent are such criminal proceedings, what are the
case scenarios, and how do proceedings unfold for sexual of-
fences against intellectually disabled victims (the “white fig-
ure” of reported offences in criminal proceedings)? Do myths
impact on real criminal proceedings?
5) How do the victims themselves perceive criminal pro-
ceedings? How do they think they are treated and informed?
The following relationships were hypothesized for the third
research question: Little knowledge about intellectual disability
would be accompanied by a more negative attitude toward the
intellectually disabled, and this would contribute to the mainte-
nance of disability-specific myths. The more negative the atti-
tudes and the stronger the acceptance of myths, the lower, in
turn, for example, the fundamental willingness to consider the
testimony of an intellectually disabled victim as credible.
Design of the Research Project
Research question 1 was answered by analyzing the (con-
tinuing) education curricula; Research question 2, by analyzing
the literature recommended by lecturers. Both analyses served
initially to determine which specialized knowledge was theo-
retically available to each professional group during (continu-
ing) education.
Research question 3 was answered through a written survey
of the relevant professions engaged in criminal proceedings.
The major task here was to develop a quasiexperimental re-
search design to assess the relation between the predictor vari-
ables attitude, knowledge, and acceptance of myths on the one
side and measures for the intuitive assessment of case scenarios
on the other. To assess the attitudes toward people with intel-
lectual disability (Scale 1), Akrami, Ekehammar, Claesson, and
Sonnander’s (2006) classical and modern scales of attitudes
toward people with intellectual disabilities were translated into
German, the items were adapted to the German language, and
additional items were included to assess, for example, the im-
portant domain of the sexuality of people with intellectual dis-
abilities. Rape myths acceptance (Scale 2) was assessed with
only slightly adjusted items from existing scales, namely, the
Acceptance of Modern Myths about Sexual Aggression (AMM-
SA) Scale from Gerger et al. (2007) and the Rape Myths Ac-
ceptance (VMA) Scale from Bohner et al. (1998). The accep-
tance of disability-specific myths (Scale 3), such as the myth
that supposed unattractiveness protects people with intellectual
disabilities from sexual abuse, was assessed with a specially
developed scale, and a test was also developed to assess know-
ledge on intellectual disability and sexual abuse (Scale 4). All
assessment instruments were first evaluated in a comprehensive
prestudy that gave separate pretests to different populations and
then optimized them for the actual data collection with factor
analyses and scale analyses. Dependent variables (e.g., the at-
tribution of credibility) were assessed by asking participants to
rate case scenarios in which the degree of disability of the vic-
tim of sexual abuse was varied as the independent variable (no,
light, and moderate intellectual disability).
Participants were recruited through professional associations,
Internet searches, and telephone searches. A total of 3185 ques-
tionnaires were sent out with stamped-addressed envelopes and
3059 persons were contacted. These were 516 forensic-psychi-
atric experts (complete population in AT, CH, DE), 652 foren-
sic-psychological experts (complete population in AT, CH, DE),
430 police officers (judgment sample in CH), 492 social work-
ers in victim counseling centers and legal guardianship offices
(Amtsvormundschaften) (judgment sample in CH), and 969 jud-
icial staff (approximately one-half public prosecutors [complete
population in CH] and one-half criminal law judges including
lay judges [stratified random sample in CH]). The return rate
was approximately 34%.
Research question 4 was addressed with a quantitative and
qualitative analysis of the records of criminal proceedings for
sex crime cases from the years 2000-2009 in two German-
speaking Swiss cantons. This analysis was designed to gain
information not only on the frequency of such criminal pro-
ceedings and the scenarios of these crimes but also on whether
participants in the proceedings referred to myths when arguing
cases of the sexual abuse of people with intellectual disabilities;
that is, whether these myths were effective in proceedings (see
Block II in Figure 1). Because the official registers did not
specify whether a victim had an intellectual disability, it was
necessary to use information in these registers to preselect cases
in which to search directly for indications of intellectual dis-
ability. A matrix was developed to assess not only quantitative
data on the victim, t he accused, and proceedings but also quai l-
tative data on the potential use of myths about sexual abuse and
intellectual disability by professionals involved in the proceed-
ings. The qualitative data were analyzed with Atlas.ti© com-
puter software and classified on the basis of Mayring’s (2002)
qualitative cont ent analysis.
Although the study focused particularly on the social percep-
tion processes that reflect the external outlook on intellectual
disability, the authors strived to take systematic account of the
different perspectives; that is, to find out not only what the
actors in the criminal justice system had to say but also the
victims themselves (see Block III in Figure 1). Victims were
accessed through professional groups whose work brings them
into direct contact with victims of sexual abuse. Letters were
written to all members of German-Swiss bar associations active
in the assistance of victims as well as further nonmembers and
staff at victim support centers. Victims’ perceptions and ap-
praisals of proceedings were assessed with semistructured prob-
lem-centered interviews focusing particularly on the framing
conditions, on the inclusion of special rules to assist victims in
criminal proceedings, on information given to the victim, and
on measures to ensure understanding. The interview conditions
were adapted to the individual needs of the respondents (dura-
tion, use of breaks, escort) based on a procedure reported by
Milne and Bull (1999). The interviews were recorded, tran-
scribed, and analyzed with the help of Atlas.ti© computer soft-
ware and classified on the basis of Mayring’s (2002) qualitative
content analysis.
Preliminary Findings and Outlook
The analyses of curricula and the literature recommended by
lecturers already showed that disability-related topics are ad-
dressed, at best, in only a very rudimentary way in the (con-
tinuing) education of relevant professional groups. This already
suggests that the project would find a lack of practice-related
knowledge. In view of the low curricular coverage of the topic,
it seems exceptionally questionable whether representatives of
the judiciary and the police, in particular, are taught sufficient
practical knowledge in their (continuing) education in Switzer-
land to enable them to address the special needs of people with
intellectual disabilities. This makes it neither surprising nor
reprehensible when proceedings reveal a degree of awkward-
ness in handling intellectually disabled victims. There is a clear
need for improvements to (continuing) education. It will be
necessary to analyze how much the representatives of different
professional groups actually know just as carefully as the rela-
tions between knowledge, acceptance of myths, attitudes, and
case evaluations .
Preliminary results on the analyses of case records revealed
statements confirming the efficacy of both myths over intellect-
tual disability and general rape myths in criminal law practice.
What makes this finding so revealing is that even when those
involved in proceedings have recourse to certain myths, they do
not necessarily express this in official documents because these
are designed to be used legally. It was also notable in this con-
text that it was not only persons who rarely had anything to do
with people with intellectual disabilities who applied these
myths but also representatives of medical and social professions
who, to some extent, even worked with the victims.
Finally, the victims themselves also experience the conse-
quences of being faced with a lack of specialized knowledge
and the acceptance of myths. Preliminary analyses of the inter-
views with victims already indicated that the representatives of
the investigating authorities do not seem to adapt their proce-
dures sufficiently to the needs of people with intellectual dis-
abilities. These particularly criticized the lack of information
about the proceedings given to them as victims, the excessive
length of proceedings, as well as the way they were treated as
victims—particularly the lack of and incorrect knowledge about
intellectual disability and failure to take account of their needs
during hearings.
Sexual abuse proceedings are always stressful for any victim.
However, when the victim is intellectually disabled, further
special aspects emerge (e.g., they are more easily irritated, have
difficulties in recalling from memory) that can make the situa-
tion even more difficult. These special aspects need to be inte-
grated into the design of criminal proceedings in order to enable
people with intellectual disabilities to also experience proce-
dural fairness. Criticism of the length of proceedings and a lack
of sufficient information on the state and the outcome of pro-
ceedings are already a general finding from international sur-
veys of victims without learning difficulties (Frazier & Haney,
1996). However, such framing conditions have further cones-
quences when the victim is intellectually disabled. If, for exam-
ple, an intellectually disabled person has to give testimony sev-
eral months or even one year after the offence is reported, this
greatly reduces the quality of recall—an easily avoided proce-
dural error that may, nonetheless, have a decisive impact on the
outcome of criminal proceedings. Knowledge gaps and mis-
conceptions could also offer an explanation for the observation
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 377
that those involved in proceedings do not adjust these suffi-
ciently to the needs of individuals with intellectual disabilities.
Whereas some of the aspects respondents complain about are
unavoidable in a due process of law (e.g., a thorough and criti-
cal examination of whether an accusation can be proved), there
can be no question that every unnecessary stress, triggered, for
example, by the inappropriate behavior of those involved in
proceedings needs to be avoided (Volbert, 2012). Such unnec-
essary stress should be ruled out in principle—not just for vic-
tims with intellectual disability, but particularly for such vic-
Naturally, the present study has several limitations. When
working with data on the number of cases in the “white figure”
of criminal proceedings, it is always necessary to assume a
major “dark figure” in this area of offending (Fitzgerald, 2006;
Temkin & Krahé, 2008) and particularly in this target group,
because studies consistently suggest that, although the sexual
abuse of people with disabilities is common, the proportion of
cases resulting in prosecution is very low (Green, 2001). How-
ever, even when working with the white figure of criminal pro-
ceeding studied here, the way in which cases had to be acquired
and the probability that those involved in proceedings were not
always aware of the victim’s intellectual disability will have
resulted in a marked underestimation of the number of court
cases involving sexual offences against persons with intellec-
tual disabilities. When analyzing the records of criminal pro-
ceedings, it should also be taken into account that these are not
always complete and their documentation inevitably involves
selection processes and distortions. Therefore, when interpret-
ing the results, one should bear in mind that this is, in principle,
an analysis of “reality according to the records.” In this light, it
is even more remarkable that the case records analyzed here
reveal statements confirming the impact of myths. Turning to
the findings obtained from interviews, it should be noted that
such an explorative study cannot claim to be representative. In
addition, retrospectively evaluating experiences in criminal
proceedings may well be hampered not only by motivational
problems in recruiting respondents but also and in particular by
cognitive problems in surveying this target group. Future stud-
ies should try to avoid these problems by, for example, survey-
ing respondents immediately after an offence is reported to the
police and then following them up using a longitudinal design.
Nonetheless, the main findings from the interviews are clearly
supported by those from the questionnaire survey and the
analysis of case records.
For a long time, sexual abuse of men and women with intel-
lectual disabilities was taken to be inconceivable (Fegert,
Jeschke, Thomas, & Lehmkuhl, 2006). Social perception proc-
esses probably contributed to the failure to recognize this prob-
lem. The present research project examined the significance of
both such processes and knowledge deficits within the frame-
work of criminal proceedings for sexual offences. When setting
up the project, the managers of two renowned organizations
campaigning for the rights of people with intellectual disability
located both in Switzerland and abroad seriously doubted any
large-scale sexual abuse of people with intellectual disability.
Although the public outcry in February 2011 when a social
worker confessed to sexually abusing 114 mostly physically
and intellectually disabled persons while working in Switzer-
land and Germany may have made the general public more
aware that this may be a misperception, it has not solved the
underlying problem. The managers’ doubts cited here illustrate
what the preliminary findings of the present study already sug-
gest: There are numerous misconceptions about this topic, and
in no way just among representatives of the police and judiciary,
but also among persons who should actually know more about
it through their training and their work. This initial situation
already leads us to the following conclusion: If the current dis-
cussion on the inclusion of people with intellectual disability is
to be taken seriously, there is still a great deal t o do.
We thank R. Berli, S. Flindt, K. Trost, and M. Zöhner for
their support during various phases of the project. This study
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