Abuse and Exploitation of People with Developmental Disabilities

Abuse and exploitation are constant dangers for people with developmental disabilities. In fact, they are four to ten times more likely to be abused than their peers without disabilities. Compared to the general population, people with developmental disabilities are at greatest risk of abuse[1] and –

  • Tend to be abused more frequently.
  • Are abused for longer periods of time.
  • Are less likely to access the justice system.
  • Are more likely to be abused by a caregiver or someone they know; many are repeatedly abused by the same person.
  • Are more likely to remain in abusive situations.[2]

Children with disabilities, in particular, have a higher risk of being abused or neglected. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, 11 percent of all child abuse victims in 2009 had a physical, cognitive and/or behavioral disability and children with disabilities are almost two times more likely to be physically or sexually abuse or neglected than children without disabilities.[3] In addition, abuse is typically more severe, is more likely to occur multiple times and is more likely to be repeated for a longer period of time.

The United States Department of Justice reports that as many as one out of three girls and one out of five boys, will be sexually abused by the time they’re 18; this rate is even higher among children with disabilities. According to one study, children with disabilities are three times more likely to be abused than their peers without disabilities, while children with intellectual and mental health disabilities have nearly five times the risk of being sexually abused.[4]

People with disabilities are more susceptible to abuse for many reasons. Some of these reasons are:

  • Predators may perceive a person with disabilities as weak, vulnerable or less likely to report abuse, making them easy targets.
  • People with disabilities are often isolated and dependent on a small circle of friends or caregivers for critical support, including assistance with basic physical needs. These same caregivers are often the abusers, which poses a difficult decision for the victim who is required to choose between the potential for continuing abuse and an uncertain future.
  • Many live in segregated environments, such as group homes, where abuse can occur – and be hidden – more easily. In addition, victims who are abused in group settings may have limited access to police, advocates, medical or social services representatives, or others who can intervene and help.
  • People with limited communication abilities and/or cognitive disabilities may find it difficult to report abuse effectively.
  • Many people with disabilities are afraid that they will not be believed when they do report abuse.
  • Many people with disabilities have been verbally abused, resulting in low self-esteem and, in some cases, a belief that the abuse is somehow deserved.
  • It is easier to abuse or exploit someone if you inherently believe that people with disabilities are less human, less valuable or don’t contribute to society.

Abuse can take many forms, ranging from overt physical and/or sexual assaults to bullying and emotional abuse that are more difficult to prove but whittle away at a person’s dignity and sense of worth. The word “abuse” is a broad term that describes any behavior that is:

  • Unwanted.
  • Intentionally harms an individual.
  • Is demeaning or insulting.
  • Causes another person to be afraid.

People with disabilities experience the same forms of physical violence, sexual abuse and molestation and neglect as the general population. However, they experience these abuses at much higher rates. For example, people with disabilities are victims of nearly 1 million nonfatal, violent crimes every year, including rape, sexual assault, aggravated and simple physical assault, and robbery.[5] People with disabilities are also more likely to experience several less common forms of abuse. For example, it is not uncommon for an abuser to manipulate medications or to withhold access to assistive equipment and technology, including communications devices, in order to control behavior. In other cases, a personal care assistant might refuse to provide essential assistance.[6]

Unfortunately, in many cases, the victim knows his or her attacker. The majority of abusers are family members, relatives, caregivers, neighbors, classmates, educators or staff members assigned to support the person with disabilities.

From the Denver Police Department, June 14, 2017

Denver Police Department & Denver District Attorney’s Office Announce New Elder Abuse Units

In 2016, about 850 cases of abuse, neglect, and exploitation involving seniors or individuals with developmental disabilities were investigated by the Denver Police Department’s Special Victim’s Unit.  On June 15, 2017, in recognition of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, an Elder Abuse Unit was established. This Unit will conduct joint investigations with social workers and the District Attorney’s Office, and also prosecute financial fraud cases tat target at risk individuals.


Select a topic below for more in-depth information.

Physical Abuse
Sexual Abuse
Medical or Physical Neglect
Verbal and Psychological Abuse
Financial Fraud

  1. ^Sobsey, D., D. Wells, R. Lucardie, and S. Mansell. 1995. Violence and Disability: An Annotated Bibliography. Baltimore, MD. Brookes Publishing.
  2. ^People with Disabilities Affected by Violence: Court Advocacy and Intervention Tips. I-CAN Accessibility Project, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work & Partnership for People with Disabilities, Jackie Robinson, 2012. Retrieved from http://www.vanetwork.org/Resources/Robinson%20-%20People%20with%20Disabilities%20Affected%20By%20Violence%20PowerPoint.Final.%2011.29.12.pdf
  3. ^Risk and Prevention of Maltreatment of Children with Disabilities, http://www.childwelfare.gov
  4. ^Smith, N. and Harrell, S. March 2013. Sexual Abuse of Children with Disabilities: A National Snapshot. Center on Victimization and Safety, Vera Institute of Justice.
  5. ^Harrell, Ericka. Crime Against Persons with Disabilities, 2009-2011 – Statistical Tables, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Harrell, Ericka.
  6. ^Powers, Laurie E. and Oschwald, Mary. 2004. “Violence and Abuse Against People with Disabilities: Experiences, Barriers and Prevention Strategies.” Center on Self-Determination, Oregon Institute on Disability and Development, Oregon Health & Science University.