California police tasked with protecting developmentally disabled patients turned a blind eye to a pattern of sexual assault by their caregivers, according to an investigation by the independent journalism group California Watch. While there were 36 accusations of sexual abuse at state-run facilities for the disabled in the past four years, the Office of Protective Services — the specialized police force in charge of the facilities — routinely failed to take the basic steps necessary for a real investigation into the allegations. Most notably, they did not order a single rape kit in any one of the cases in question, even though the kits are “widely regarded as the best way to find evidence of sexual abuse:”
Without physical evidence, it can be nearly impossible to solve sex crimes, especially those committed against people with cerebral palsy and profound intellectual disabilities. In the three dozen cases of sexual abuse, documents obtained by California Watch reveal that patients suffered molestation, forced oral sex and vaginal lacerations. But for years, the state-run police force has moved so slowly and ineffectively that predators have stayed a step ahead of law enforcement or abused new victims, records show.
Much of the alleged sexual abuse in the California institutions has occurred at the Sonoma Developmental Center, where female patients have been repeatedly assaulted, internal incident records show. In one case, a caregiver was cleared by the police department of assault and went on to molest a second patient.
The mentally disabled are particularly in need of zealous police protection, as their limitations make it significantly harder for them to testify or identify their attackers. That’s why mentally handicapped persons are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted. Moreover, some of the evidence of assault was unequivocal: one mentally disabled patient, Jennifer, was found with “blue bruises shaped like handprints covering [her] breasts” and, later, turned out to be pregnant. Though she pointed to an employee of her facility as her rapist, the Office of Protective Services “took no action” besides opening a case.
One former patrol officer at a facility, Joe Guardado, said the program administrators were to blame for this unconscionable negligence. “They didn’t want anything to get out, so they handled it internally. They call the shots,” Guardado told California Watch.
The failure to properly collect and test rape kits is, sadly, not limited to California facilities. Several states have charged rape victims hefty sums for their kits, potentially limiting access to justice for indigent victims. The federal Violence Against Women Act requires rape kits be provided free of charge as a condition of states receiving federal dollars. There are also thousands of rape kits that have been collected, but have not been analyzed for use in investigations or trials: by one estimate, “400,000-500,000 untested rape kits sitting in police evidence storage facilities and crime labs across the country.”