Stopping Abuse of the Disabled—and Knowing the Signs

Published on: March 29, 2018

Abuse of people with disabilities in FloridaAs advocates for the disabled, we work tirelessly every day to ensure their well-being and future security. But unfortunately, cases of abuse happen all too frequently—and these are only the ones that we know about. Abuse can happen in a home situation, by a parent, child, or partner. But it can also happen in a special care facility, where we may unknowingly entrust our loved ones to untrained, inexperienced, or simply abusive caregivers (we use that term loosely in some situations).

Of course, there are many, many wonderful caregivers—in the best and truest sense of the word. These individuals have a passion for helping others and are understanding, caring, accommodating, and sympathetic. But in the wrong hands, our loved ones can become victims. And because the disabled don't always have a voice, they may not know how to explain abusive situations, may not be sure what constitutes abuse, or may just be too frightened or ashamed to discuss it.

Our concern is that there are far more incidents that go unreported. The numbers, unfortunately, seem to support this fear.

Disabled Abuse Statistics

Abuse is about power and control. Because disabled persons often rely on others for assistance, their power and control is limited, giving both to the caregiver—who may take advantage of that. While the most recent widespread national survey was five years ago, its still believed to be the largest of its kind, and the findings were horrifying and heartbreaking. The survey involved over 7,200 people, including the disabled themselves, their family, caregivers, and specialists. In the end, 70 percent of disabled individuals—that's 7 out of 10— said that they had been abused (with over 60 percent of family members corroborating the account). 

Of those who reported being victims of abuse:

  • Nearly 90% said they were verbally or emotionally harmed (financial abuse, such as theft or withholding of SSDI by home caregivers, was also frequently cited)
  • Over 50% experienced physical abuse
  • 40% reported sexual abuse

Types of Abuse

When we think abuse, we generally think of it in terms of the physical and sexual, and as the numbers above have demonstrated, both happen with disturbing frequency. But many people may not understand what that other 90% number boils down to. Verbal and emotional abuse can be just as damaging, and may include:

  • Shaming them privately or publicly due to their disability
  • Mocking and laughing at their disability
  • Encouraging suicide, i.e. "you're selfish for putting your family through this"
  • Invalidating their disability, i.e. "you're faking it for attention"
  • Not helping with basic needs they'd agreed to, such as using the restroom
  • Withholding medication or overmedicating 
  • Withholding assistive devices such as a walker
  • Withholding "privileges" (cell phone, TV, etc) as "punishment"
  • Threatening their service pet
  • Convincing them their disability is a reason to abuse them, i.e. “you deserve this”

As advocates, it's difficult to believe anyone could behave this way, but ignoring the reality is not going to improve the situation. You may be rightly thinking, "what kind of monster would do this?", which brings us to...

The Case of Carlton Palms

If you’re a Florida resident, you’ve probably heard about Carlton Palms, the Mount Dora facility with a history of abuse against the disabled. Many disturbing stories have come to light, and in the past five years alone, two cases have resulted in death.

2013: A 14-year old autistic teen was tied up in restraints and left untreated for a stomach bug for days causing excessive vomiting, which led to dehydration and ultimately her death; when surveillance video was requested, authorities were told it was "accidentally deleted." A $10,000 fine was imposed.

2014: A caregiver threw scalding water on an autistic man when he refused to drink his coffee resulting in severe chest burns; she later served six months in jail.

2016: A disabled man with difficulty speaking was found with severe lacerations; caregivers said he caused them to himself, but cameras told a different story, showing them pushing him into a wall, throwing him to the floor, choking him, and thrusting an elbow to his head. 

2018: In the most recent case, a 26-year old autistic man was found dead after apparently “beating his head against objects in his bedroom.” However, it was discovered that the man had no head injuries, and police found no blood. In a turn of events surprising no one, the camera in his room was found to be “not working.”

With investigations ongoing, residents moving out, and advocates everywhere calling for the place to be permanently shut down, it’s likely we won’t be hearing about Carlton Palms for much longer. But why is this allowed to happen, and what can we do to prevent it when it come to our loved ones?

Knowing the Signs of Abuse

The disabled aren’t always equipped to explain abuse. They also may be scared to report it, even to loved ones, for fear of retaliation from their abuser. While you should always keep your eye out for physical abuse, such as unexplained bruising, cuts, abrasions, fractures, strains, and sprains, there are some other potential non-physical signs to watch for:

  • Avoidance or fear of staff, especially a particular staff member
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Unusual mood swings
  • Extreme passivity or excessive compliance
  • Questionable explanations for injuries
  • Unusual sexual behavior or knowledge
  • Anxiety attacks
  • Going to bed fully clothed
  • No desire to socialize
  • Persistent hunger or lack of appetite

Of course, these are not definitive signs; everyone has mood swings, and sometimes we just don’t feel like eating. But if a pattern seems to be developing, there may be cause for concern. If you suspect abuse to a loved one or anyone else, it’s your duty to report it.

Final Thoughts

Florida law now treats assault against disabled people as a first-class felony that can carry up to a 30-year sentence, with failure to report suspected abuse considered a third-degree felony punishable by up to 5-years in prison. That's a good start, of course, but as we’ve seen from some of the Carlton Palms cases, maximums aren't always doled out and we can’t count on legal punishment being enough of a deterrent. Each of us must be vigilant in keeping an eye out for possible abuse situations and stopping it in its tracks.

If you're disabled and are the victim of abuse, or even if you feel you might be, we encourage you to speak with a loved one or you can always contact us for help. If you're a friend or family member of a disabled person, do your homework, learn the signs, and work with them to strengthen your bonds and gain more trust so you’ll be in a better position to know if they may be a victim of abuse. And know that if you're looking for help with navigating disability benefits, Disability Experts of Florida is here for you.


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