#Metoo must include the most vulnerable people in Texas

Photo by Todd Wiseman

In 2009, someone turned in a lost cell phone to the Corpus Christi Police Department. It belonged to an employee of the Corpus Christi State School (since renamed the Corpus Christi State Supported Living Center, or CCSSLC), one of 13 state-run residential facilities in Texas for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). On that phone was a recording of CCSSLC residents fighting while employees in the background egged them on. The discovery of the recording led to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) into all 13 facilities, which in turn led to a 10-year settlement agreement between Texas and DOJ.

We are now nearly eight years into the agreement, and such little progress has been made by the state in improving conditions that DOJ agreed to restructure the agreement in order to make the goals more achievable.

One of the most important facets of this new agreement is reducing incidents of abuse, neglect and exploitation among SSLC residents. Texas doesn’t provide incident data in a form that’s easily digestible, so it can be hard to make a clear judgment as to whether these incidents are increasing or decreasing. However, we do know prevalence rates for sexual abuse among non-institutionalized people with IDD are seven times that of the general population. 

A commonly-cited statistic in the literature states 30 percent of men and 80 percent of women with IDD have experienced sexual assault. Of those women, nearly half have been assaulted more than 10 times. According to the intellectual disability advocacy group The Arc, an astonishing 97 to 99 percent of perpetrators are known to the victim. It seems likely, then, that SSLC residents experience rates of abuse at rates similar to or higher than those cited here.

There are a multitude of ways to prevent sexual abuse among people with IDD — and one way in particular stands out as being simple and highly effective: Texas must provide current, comprehensive sex education for people with IDD, beginning with the roughly 3,200 residents of the State Supported Living Centers (SSLCs).

As a former associate psychologist for the Austin State Supported Living Center, I can attest to the struggles we have faced on this front. When you are 20, 30, even 60 years old and have never been taught about sex, touch, what your body can do and what is and isn't acceptable, you are left to navigate an incredibly confusing and oftentimes frightening realm on your own.

I remember being 24 years old and working with men in their 50s and 60s who had seemingly never had someone explain to them how their bodies worked and why they felt the way they did, and how it wasn't okay for them to be touched without their permission. 

I can attest to the dearth of sex education materials available, even to clinicians. The only thing we had in our library were two VHS tapes from 1995 addressing masturbation, which left me to cobble together material on my own when I needed to work with a client on appropriate relationships.

Clients had been left to themselves to figure out what was or wasn't an appropriate relationship, resulting in multiple unsubstantiated allegations against them and a good deal of emotional fallout. Had we been given more tools to help teach what makes a healthy relationship, how to set boundaries and what touching is and isn't appropriate, we likely would have been able to avoid their experiencing significant depressive episodes. 

I think back on the people I've worked with, the abuse they've endured, the stories they've told and their struggle to be believed. Nationwide, it’s estimated that only 3 percent of incidents of sexual abuse among people with IDD will be reported. One of the biggest factors contributing to this is the near total lack of sex education made available; it is already incredibly difficult to report abuse on your own, even when you have the tools to do so. It is imperative we start to integrate sex education into the services and supports the state of Texas provides for people with IDD. 

In the era of #metoo, we must include everyone.

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Lindsey Zischkale

Implementation specialist, Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health, UT-Austin