Home Blog Advocating for Sexual Assault Survivors with Intellectual Disabilities

Advocating for Sexual Assault Survivors with Intellectual Disabilities

December 08, 2021
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Yeshiva University Wurzweiler School of Social Work Professor Daniel Pollack, MSW, JD, and associate attorney Helene M. Weiss were featured in the New York Law Journal for with their commentary article, “Interviewing and Deposing Survivors of Sexual Crimes Who Have Intellectual Disabilities.”

Pollack and Weiss note that individuals with intellectual disabilities are more likely to be victims of sexual assault. In order to be effective advocates, legal professionals need to be trained to interview and depose this population of survivors.

Challenges in Reporting and Beyond for Survivors with Intellectual Disabilities

The sexual assault reporting process can be difficult and confusing for anyone, but for individuals with intellectual disabilities, reporting can be especially challenging. And all of this is taking place before a case is officially created.

Some of the specific challenges sexual assault survivors with intellectual disabilities face include:

  • Making the report in the first place
  • Having their credibility questioned because of their disability
  • Putting themselves at risk if the perpetrator is also a caregiver
  • Encountering professionals who do not have the necessary skills to conduct a proper interview in order to make the report

Sexual assault survivors with intellectual disabilities are particularly vulnerable to the perpetrator being in close proximity to them, or to being controlled, whether physically or psychologically, but the attacker. This makes it especially difficult to report the crime.

If the individual is able to overcome the reporting hurdle, the rest of the process is not any easier. Pollack and Weiss note that the rapport and relationship developed with the attorney is essential to a case becoming a healing process, rather than causing further trauma. Individuals with intellectual disabilities may not freely disclose information, and they may not understand how the information they do divulge will be used in the case. It falls to the attorney to become better informed about how to work with a client with an intellectual disability.

How Attorneys Can Work with Clients with Intellectual Disabilities

Genuine compassion, empathy, and patience go a long way in this process. To start, attorneys need to allow more time for interviewing and depositions than they normally do. Pollack and Weiss suggest starting interviews with unrelated icebreaker topics to help the survivor feel more at ease. They also note that allowing a trusted friend or family member to sit in on the interview can also help put the client at ease.

Being specific with what is about to happen leading into the interview is helpful to set expectations. Also, clearly explaining the roles of everyone involved is important, as attorneys should not assume that the client has a clear understanding of the judicial system. Language used should be concrete and clear, and most importantly age appropriate for the client.

During the interview, the attorney should check in to make sure the client understands what is being asked. It is suggested that it is especially important to check in when switching between topics in the interview.

While attorneys will have more control over the environment and questions during the interview, the client will be exposed to an environment that may be out of their control during the deposition. The attorney can set their client up for success in this process by explaining how the deposition will work and being clear that there are no right or wrong answers to the questions the opposing attorney will ask. Pollack and Weiss also remind attorneys who are cross examining an opposing client with intellectual disabilities that empathy and patience should still be employed.

Overall, attorneys should seek out resources on working with clients with disabilities to ensure they understand how to relate to, interview, and depose these types of clients.

Read the full article here.

About the Authors

Pollack is a professor for the Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He has been an expert witness for lawyers in more than 30 states. Since 1980, Pollack has held executive, management, and policy-making positions in social welfare agencies in Maryland and Ohio. Pollack's research interests include law, ethics, and liability; adoption, foster care, child abuse and neglect; wrongful death of children in foster care and residential care; risk management; record keeping; licensing and accreditation; domestic violence, and international social work.

Weiss is an associate attorney at the Marsh Law Firm in New York. She is also a special professor of law for the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University.

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