(WOMENSENEWS)--Domestic violence among women with disabilities rarely if ever gets this kind of national attention.
But next month, 150 representatives from disability and violence services organizations across the country will meet in Nashville , Tenn., to discuss this particular safety problem.
Cindy Dyer, director of the Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women--which provides over $5 million in yearly funds to state and community organizations for programs that address disability issues--said the focus of the Dec. 16-17 meeting will be on improving coordination between providers and the array of institutions involved with domestic violence: battered women's shelters, the police and the courts.
"One thing we do know is that we need to be able to provide a victim with all the different services that she needs wherever in the system she falls," said Dyer.
Dyer said women with mental disabilities are a particular concern because abusers will often consider them less likely to report abuse or be believed.
Karen, a woman with multiple physical and congenital disabilities, said that has been true in her own case.
Because she feared being identified by her current abuser, she only agreed to be interviewed if her real name was not published. She said service providers have been unwilling and unable to help her.
"I've been abused by caregivers, family, boyfriends, nurses and doctors, and even by other disabled people my entire life," Karen told Women's eNews recently. She was contacted through an online support group for people with disabilities.
'I've Been Turned Away'
Karen said she has been forced to deal with counselors with no training in disability issues, including social workers on an abuse hotline. "Battered women's programs have literally turned me away because of my disabilities," she said. "My church gave me the cold shoulder as well."
Karen thinks service providers often don't consider the possibility of domestic violence among people with disabilities. She said she is often told that she must be exaggerating and her abusive caregiver is the one who is treated like an "overstressed victim."
"It's made out to be my fault because I haven't done the 'sensible' thing of resigning my life and moving into a nursing home."
While men with disabilities are susceptible to domestic abuse the problem is worse for women because they, as a group, are five to eight times more likely to suffer from domestic violence by intimate partners than are men, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Women in the United States with disabilities are significantly more likely to suffer from domestic violence than are other women.
Estimates differ, but the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in October that 37 percent of women with disabilities report intimate partner abuse as compared to 21 percent of women without disabilities.
This figure does not include violence suffered at the hands of caregivers or family members who are not intimate partners.
Many Shelters Inaccessible
Many battered women's resources are not accessible to people with disabilities. Safe havens and the legal system may not be equipped to deal with a victim who is deaf or cognitively impaired, for example.
The Office for Women in Westchester County, New York, is beginning to move into this neglected area of abuse prevention.
In partnership with the Westchester County's Office for the Disabled, the women's office is currently conducting one of the first local studies in the nation on rates of abuse among women with disabilities.
The joint effort--which works with shelters and other providers of nonresidential services for sufferers of domestic violence--hopes to gain more information about such incidences among residents of Westchester County. The agencies were founded five years apart about three decades ago.
Camille Murphy, director of the Office for Women, said the idea arose when she and her colleagues noticed over the years that "although all of our shelters are accessible, the use of them by disabled people had become real."
Last spring, Westchester County was "able to turn a direct focus on the issue," says Murphy. Soon thereafter surveys were sent to 350 police departments, elected officials, battered women's shelters and disability service providers.
To date the county has collected about 10 percent of the surveys and expects to complete the data collection process in January 2009.
Murphy said 70 percent of those women with disabilities surveyed so far have been abused by caregivers, including both family members and professionals.
When the research is complete, Murphy said she and her colleagues hope to better understand how to provide services that address the unique needs of domestic violence victims who have a disability.
Murphy says that in addition to encouraging community outreach, Westchester County expects to be able to create a "more formal network of service providers," who will have been trained in disability sensitivity and accessibility issues in order to more directly concentrate on these needs.
Model of Comprehensive Services
One group that might provide Murphy with a model is New York City's Barrier Free Living. Established over 25 years ago, it offers comprehensive services for people with disabilities and has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice as one of 12 model programs in the country.
The organization runs two programs for people with disabilities who are affected by abuse.
Freedom House, in operation since 2006, is the nation's first totally accessible crisis shelter. Offering food, clothing and occupational therapy, the safe haven has strobe lights that serve as alarms for deaf individuals, Braille signage for the blind and a completely wheelchair friendly design.
It was developed for both abuse survivors with disabilities and those survivors with children who have disabilities. In short, the shelter primarily serves individuals and families affected by disability and domestic violence, housing 95 residents at a time for up to four-and-a-half months.
Nonresidential intervention services--such as counseling and safety planning--are provided by the Secret Garden, the second program run by Barrier Free Living.
Secret Garden services include help with placement in residences, lining up future home care, medical care and schooling for children.
Between the 44-apartment Freedom House and the intervention services of the Secret Garden, Paul Feuerstein, president of Barrier Free Living, estimates that the organization served 2,000 victims of abuse last year, most of whom were women and children.
"We have worked with women from 13 different states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, who have come to us for services because they haven't been able to find the accessible shelters where they are," Feuerstein said.
Annemarie Taddeucci, a quadriplegic, is a writer and journalist, as well as a graduate student in the forensic mental health counseling program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
This story, part of our New Writers Program, was funded by the McCormick Tribune Foundation.
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