Nonprofit receives grant to aid sex assault victims with disabilities

July 4, 2018

An Albuquerque-based nonprofit that serves people with intellectual disabilities has received an $81,000 state grant for a new program to provide legal aid and treatment referrals for disabled victims of sexual assault.

Grant funding from the New Mexico Crime Victims Reparation Commission will allow the Arc of New Mexico’s new Sexual Assault Services Program to serve 25 people from six counties, including Santa Fe, in its first year.

According to a yearlong investigation published by National Public Radio, 75 percent to 90 percent of people with disabilities are sexually assaulted at some time in their lives. People with intellectual or developmental disabilities are particularly vulnerable, and oftentimes they are unable to express themselves or unwilling to speak out following a traumatic incident such as rape.

New Mexico doesn’t have data on disabled people who have been victims of sexual assault, said Pamela Stafford, Arc’s public policy director and supervisor of the Sexual Assault Services Program. But, she said, after 25 years of working with intellectually disabled people across the state, she believes the problem “should be considered epidemic.”

Numbers in the NPR study are “absolutely believable to me on an anecdotal basis,” she said, “based on the people I’ve worked with. The majority of people I know have been sexually assaulted.”

Unfortunately, she said, Arc likely will have to turn clients away within the first year of the new sexual assault program. “What we’re concerned about is being overwhelmed too quickly.”

A key aspect of the new program, Stafford said, is collaboration with other community services organizations.

“We are not going to be able to do this in a vacuum,” she said. “We’re going to need, in some ways, to connect the two worlds — the world of sexual assault services and the world of disability support. This will only be successful if we are able to navigate and bridge those two worlds. …

“There’s all kinds of things we can do to improve quality of services and more community integration for people with developmental disabilities,” she added.

Arc is interviewing applicants to serve as advocates for victims and will begin recruiting program participants in September. The organization plans to be at full capacity by June 2019, providing clients with treatment referrals and legal liaisons to help them navigate criminal cases against their attackers and prepare for court proceedings.

“If we don’t start prosecuting,” Stafford said, “then the numbers are just going to continue.”

People with disabilities rarely are given the credibility they deserve, she said — not just in the courtroom, but also among family and friends.

Stafford hopes more disability-focused organizations become aware of the prevalence of sexual violence and learn how to help address it.

“Because people don’t have the expertise or understanding of the population, the population ends up not being served — or at least poorly served,” she said.

“I’ve seen how sexual assault impacts people in the long term,” Stafford added. “Many people have never really healed.”