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Explainer: Investigating sexual abuse in California’s developmental centers

Patients at California's five board-and-care centers for the developmentally disabled have accused caretakers and other employees of rape and molestation 36 times during the past four years.

The Office of Protective Services, the agency in charge of protecting this vulnerable population of 1,600 patients statewide, failed to order a single outside rape examinationfor any of the alleged victims, most of whom are female. These patients suffer from cerebral palsy, severe autism and other intellectual disabilities.

Under other circumstances, performing a rape examination is a routine part of a police investigation. Performed by specially trained nurses to find all manner of physical evidence, it is an important part of investigating sexual abuse allegations, identifying a suspect and solving sex crimes.

But this is often not the case at California’s developmental centers. Former detectives and patrol officers at three of the five centers say the Office of Protective Services blocked or ignored investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct.


In Jennifer's Room

A young developmentally disabled woman just wanted to be left alone. What happened next shattered a family.

In 2006, Jennifer, a patient at the Sonoma Developmental Center with severe intellectual disabilities, was found to have severe bruises across her chest, which she attributed to a caregiver at the centerwho abused her. Her mother was told by a social worker that the Office of Protective Services had thoroughly investigated Jennifer’s allegation but could not prove it.

Less than a year later, during a weekend visit to her family's home, Jennifer's family discovered she was pregnant. Records show that hospital staff either ignored or overlooked her condition.

Catch-22 in evidence collection

Four years ago, the Office of Protective Services implemented its first policy regarding the investigation of potential sex crimes. However, these guidelines often present a barrier to investigating sexual assaults, rather than helping. For example, the following requirements must be met for a “rape kit” examination to be ordered:

“A sexual assault occurred within the preceding 72 hours and there is potential for recovery of physical evidence of the recent sexual assault.”(Emphasis from original policy)

Experts on sexual assault investigations told California Watch that the phrase “potential for recovery” is problematic because detectives cannot tell what evidence exists before a patient is examined. It leaves them in a Catch-22:How do you know what evidence there is to collect if you are unable to collect it? Additionally, Roberta Hopewell, a detective at the Riverside Police Department, says the 72-hour time limit is outdated, as physical evidence sometimes can be recovered up to two weeks after an assault.

So what’s being done?

In September, Gov.Jerry Brown signed SB1522, which requires that developmental centers report alleged sexual assaults against patients to outside law enforcement. According to a statement, the law “will ensure developmental center investigators and outside law enforcement agencies work collaboratively to investigate unexplained injuries or allegations of abuse.”

How to get involved

The support network for the disabled is a wide one. These groups offer resources to find out more, as well as information on how to get involved. If you want to share your stories about developmental centers, we’d love to hear from you.

Californians for Disability Rights – California's oldest and largest organization of people with disabilities.
From the group’s website: CDR and its members fight for the independence, dignity and equality of all disabled persons.

Disability Rights Advocates – A nonprofit legal center dedicated to securing the civil rights of people with disabilities. All work is done pro bono.
From the group’s website: DRA advocates for disability rights through high-impact litigation, as well as research and education.

Disability Rights California – Provides free legal and advocacy services to low-income Californians with disabilities. All work is done pro bono.

From the group’s website: Advocate, educate, investigate and litigate to advance and protect the rights of Californians with disabilities.

Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund – A national civil rights law and policy center directed by individuals with disabilities and parents who have children with disabilities.
From the group’s website: The mission of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund is to advance the civil and human rights of people with disabilities through legal advocacy, training, education, and public policy and legislative development.

National Disability Rights Network – Protection and advocacy for people with disabilities.

From the group’s website: Through training and technical assistance, legal support and legislative advocacy, NDRN works to create a society in which people with disabilities are afforded equality of opportunity and are able to fully participate by exercising choice and self-determination.

If you suspect abuse at one of California's developmental centers, please share your story with California Watch via the Public Insight Network. All information is confidential and could help inform our reporting on this topic.

Get more updates from our Broken Shield investigation as we publish them. Text “OPS” to 877877 and visit californiawatch.org/brokenshield

See what we found in our ongoing Broken Shield investigation. Download our series explainer to learn more.

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