Special-needs athletes vulnerable

Study finds developmentally disabled children 4.6 times as likely to be abused

Updated: December 24, 2013, 12:34 PM ET
By Steve Marantz | ESPN.com

The Special Olympics, founded in 1968, provides sports training and athletic competition for children and adults with developmental disabilities. In May 2012, Special Olympics reached a new milestone with more than 4 million athletes participating in programs around the world. The introduction to its mission statement reads: "Through the power of sport Special Olympics strives to create a better world by fostering acceptance and inclusion of all people."

Yet in recent years, according to an "E:60" investigation, the Special Olympics ideal has been confronted by cases involving volunteers, coaches or participants who have been charged with sexual abuse in South Carolina, California, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Texas and Florida. Moreover, the "E:60" investigation reveals that sexual victimization of the developmentally impaired is societal and far-reaching.

According to a World Health Organization study, developmentally disabled children are 4.6 times as likely to be victimized as their nondisabled peers. And according to Richard Sobsey's book, "Violence & Abuse in the Live of People with Disabilities: End of Silence of Acceptance," females with disabilities will be abused 10 or more times, on average, in their lives by different people.

Contributing factors include a lack of education, self-esteem and self-advocacy skills; weak grasp of social norms and appropriate behavior; and communication deficits. Special Olympics athletes also may be especially vulnerable to sexual abuse because of a player-coach relationship. And some rape laws may compound the problem by defining sexual victimization by age while leaving loopholes for developmental disability.

"We don't do a good job at educating them about boundaries and touch," said Beverly Frantz, who coordinates the Criminal Justice Initiative and the National Academy for Equal Justice for People with Developmental Disabilities at the Institute on Disabilities, Temple University.

"We set kids up to be victims ... and we do that by teaching them to comply. We use this word 'friend' ... everybody is their 'friend.'

"So anybody can be in their personal space, anybody can touch them. And we tell parents and educators and the professionals around them to do that, because we need to do our jobs, and to do our jobs, we need that child to comply. So we teach them that. And we don't allow the child to say no."

[+] EnlargeVictim, Jane Doe
Courtesy of E:60"Jane Doe," a special-needs student, was allegedly sexually abused by her Special Olympics basketball coach, who now awaits trial.

A notable case in South Carolina highlights the challenges and issues that can arise.

The case involves a basketball coach, Cornelius Davis, 29, who was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a 15-year-old special-needs student while at a Special Olympics event in Charleston, S.C., in March 2012. Davis is alleged to have assaulted the girl three times in two days.

Essence Gregg, the mother of the special-needs student, has filed a lawsuit alleging that her daughter, referred to as "Jane Doe," had "inappropriate sexual contact and relations" with Davis, who was her Special Olympics basketball coach as well as a teaching assistant at her high school near Columbia, S.C. The lawsuit claims that Special Olympics of South Carolina was "grossly negligent" in failing to enforce its "existing policies and procedures regarding prevention of child sexual abuse."

Davis is currently out on bail, awaiting trial. He declined an "E:60" interview request. Jane Doe, 16, now is home-schooled, medicated for anxiety and depression because of the abuse, and counseled in weekly sessions. In its response to Gregg's lawsuit, South Carolina Special Olympics denied that the girl "was an athlete registered to compete" in the Special Olympics event in Charleston. It denied liability because Davis acted "outside the scope" of his duties as a volunteer.

Special Olympics' national office declined an interview request from "E:60," but issued a statement:

"Whenever the safety of a person with intellectual disability is violated, we are deeply saddened and concerned. The discrimination, maltreatment and abuse of people with disabilities is a largely ignored and misunderstood issue, indicative of the stigmatization of people with intellectual disabilities.

"The high importance we place on the health and safety of our athletes is reflected in our policies and processes, including: national criminal background screenings of all ongoing volunteers; training volunteers on recognizing signs of abuse and identifying suspicious activity; educating parents and caregivers on how to help keep their athlete safe; and ongoing education for Special Olympics staff and volunteers."

Special Olympics offers participants and their families what it calls Protective Behaviors Training to thwart sexual abuse.

Among its recommendations:

• For athletes requiring assistance with changing, toileting or showering, it is a best practice if two volunteers are present.

• Private conversations with athletes should be within sight of others who are aware of the conversation

• Hugs should respect both athlete and volunteer limits and never be secretive.

• Touching should avoid areas a traditional swimsuit would cover.

• Be aware of unusual or inappropriate gifts, trips, affection or attention from a volunteer.

• Be aware of relationships between volunteers and athletes that become private or secretive.

• Be clear and direct about pointing out inappropriate behavior.

Sexual predators, the training points out, come from all backgrounds, can be male or female, are generally likable and have warm personalities, and may have limited relationships with other adults.

Gregg said that some advocates take a dim view of her lawsuit against Special Olympics, given its history and mission. But she questions the commitment of Special Olympics to enforce its own guidelines.

"Just like it was my daughter, it could've been your daughter or someone else's daughter," Gregg said. "You don't ever want that to happen. Supervision is supervision. We give you our children to go have fun and participate in your games. We feel like they should be protected."

Steve Marantz is an E:60 researcher and the author of "Next Up at Fenway: A Story of High School, Hope and Lindos Suenos." Producer Beein Gim contributed to this report.

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