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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, April 13, 2002

Abuse workshop breaks a barrier

By Alice Keesing
Advertiser Health Writer

People with mental disabilities are far more likely to be victims of sexual abuse, a problem that experts say has been largely ignored in Hawai'i and across the nation.

Kapi'olani Medical Center's Sex Abuse Treatment Center and the Arc in Hawaii took the first step this week in directly addressing what is described as an "uncomfortable" issue during a workshop designed to help protect women with developmental disabilities from abuse.

National research reveals that 90 percent of people with developmental disabilities will be victims of sexual abuse at some point. Particularly vulnerable are women or girls with mental retardation. Research also shows that abuse against them tends to be more severe and chronic.

"Part of the problem is we don't know enough; we don't even have the statistics," said Garrett Toguchi, executive director of the Arc in Hawaii, part of a national organization on mental retardation.

But Toguchi and others agree that Hawai'i is not immune.

"Given the low numbers that we see, probably the underreporting is staggering," said Mary Arace, manager of community outreach and education for the Sex Abuse Treatment Center.

People with intellectual disabilities are particularly vulnerable because they can be "easy" victims, said Mary Ann Blotzer, a clinical social worker from Maryland who specializes in developmental disabilities and helped develop the violence prevention workshop held Wednesday.

"People who do sleazy things look for good victims, and oftentimes people with disabilities make good victims," Blotzer said.

That's partly because of a lack of sexual knowledge among those with disabilities or because of social isolation, she said, but also because of cultural attitudes that cause others to ignore the problem.

"Most abusers have 70 victims before they're caught," she said. "If we're not effectively prosecuting these crimes, they're going off to find new victims or to keep abusing the same people. Culturally, it sends a message that violations against people with disabilities are OK."

Arace believes there is a tendency to desexualize people with intellectual disabilities and not to believe them if they report abuse.

Usually the victim knows the abuser — and it can be the caregiver — so the victim "can be very isolated and not have the social circle to get the help they need, so they stay silent," Arace said.

While there is a growing awareness of the problem nationally, Blotzer said Hawai'i is in the "vanguard" by offering Wednesday's workshop.

The workshop, attended by representatives from counseling agencies, the Police Department and the prosecutor's office, was to "get the seeds planted," Toguchi said. Organizers hope to keep raising community awareness and offer more training.

The Sex Abuse Treatment Center offers a 24-hour crisis line at 524-7273. For questions and nonemergencies, call 535-7600.