LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) - Area health officials want to raise awareness about sexual assault in one of our community's most vulnerable populations.
NPR reported that people with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at a rate seven times higher than others.
"They're definitely out there, and we're seeing them in our hospitals, for sure, which is sad,” said Kathy Bryant, SANE, or Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, coordinator for Mayo Clinic Health System.
Since July, Bryant said, Mayo has seen at least seven intellectually disabled people who were sexually assaulted.
"That's pretty high, really,” she said.
And although the population is at high risk for sexual assault, the cases often go unreported.
"Perhaps they're concerned someone's not going to believe them because of their intellectual disability or inability to put into words what happened to them,” Bryant said.
"Also, they've learned their entire lives that compliance is an important part of their lives,” said Chelsey Senn, Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Program advocate at Gundersen Health System.
Senn explained that, in most sexual assaults, the victim knows the perpetrator, and that's even more likely to be the case if the victim is intellectually disabled.
"If they're told by somebody who's a trusted individual to keep something a secret or be quiet, they're more likely to follow that direction,” she said.
"So if you are a perpetrator, they're really the perfect victim,” Bryant said. “Nobody believes them, they have a harder time reporting it and they may not know who to report to."
La Crosse's Aptiv, formerly known as Riverfront, provides on-site support services for about 300 people with disabilities.
"People with disabilities need a voice,” said marketing communications director Nate Hundt.
Hundt said his clients are a vulnerable population who need advocates against violent crime, but also against issues such as poverty.
"I think it's important to raise awareness about unmet needs of people with disabilities in general,” he said. “When those other unmet needs can be met, that limits people's vulnerability."
Bryant said everyone needs to pay attention, listen and ask questions.
"We need to ask the question in a way they understand and give them the opportunity to answer,” she said.
Mayo has an advocacy program that helps sexual assault victims after the assault, finding them a safe place and helping them through the court system.
Senn said Gundersen is focusing on prevention efforts toward vulnerable populations, including those who are intellectually and developmentally disabled.
According to Bryant, locally, sexual assault is highest in women ages 18 to 24.
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