Recognizing Signs of Sexual Abuse
Unfortunately, sexual abuse occurs more frequently than many people believe. Research studies indicate that people with disabilities, especially women and children, have a greater risk of being sexually abused than do people without disabilities. Research also supports that someone who has been a victim of sexual abuse is more likely to re-experience such victimization.
Sexual abuse is not always reported. This may occur because of fears on the part of the victim. The victim may not be able to express what occurred in ways that others clearly understand. Possible signs of sexual abuse may go unnoticed by family members and others close to the person. Sometimes it is mistakenly assumed that behaviors or changes observed are related to the person's disability rather than being a possible sign of sexual abuse.
Families play a crucial role in recognizing and responding to signs of sexual abuse. If family members are sensitive to clues that may indicate sexual abuse, actions can be taken to protect the consumer, report the abuse to the proper officials, and stop the abuse from continuing.
Included below are examples of possible signs of sexual abuse. It is important to note that these are not the only examples nor do any of these examples prove that sexual abuse occurred. Rather, the presence of any of these signs means that further consideration and examination is needed.
- Presence of pain or injury in the genital, rectum, buttocks, breasts, or mouth areas that has no obvious explanation. This includes bruising, bleeding, soreness, redness, irritation, itching, and unusual discharges.
- Torn or stained underwear or linens.
- Difficulty in walking or sitting.
- Ongoing and unexplained health problems such as stomach pain.
- Display of new fears.
- Withdrawal from previously enjoyable activities, places, or persons. The person may suddenly avoid these places or people, or display fear or discomfort.
- Changes in sleep patterns such as nightmares, trouble sleeping, sudden bedwetting, and other sleep problems.
- Changes in appetite, loss of appetite, weight gain or loss.
- Resistance to being touched or undergoing physical examination.
- Sudden or marked changes in behavior; for example, aggression, attention-seeking behavior, self-destructive behavior, depression, refusal to participate in activities, clinging to others.
- New sexual knowledge or sexual behavior, including hints about sexual activity.
- Unexplained accumulation of money or gifts.
- Sexually transmitted diseases.
Some consumers are able to tell others they have been abused. Sometimes a person's account of what occurred is not believed because others can't imagine that such things happen. Alternatively, some consumers may not be able to verbally describe what may have happened. Instead, the trauma may be expressed through changes in their behavior. Family members should be alert to sudden changes in behavior so that underlying causes can be determined. Families should trust their instincts and not second-guess themselves when they suspect something is wrong.
If you suspect sexual abuse:
- Immediately take the necessary steps to make sure your family member is safe.
- If sexual assault is suspected, immediately assist the consumer to the local hospital emergency room or rape crisis/sexual assault center.
- Contact the family member's service coordinator, Child Protective Services or Adult Protective Services in your county or the local law enforcement agency.
- Request victim services (such as counseling and therapy) for your family member.
- Contact your family member's service coordinator if you need help with any of the above steps.
Another resource for consumers and their families is the Victim Witness Assistance Program of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California. This program can be contacted as follows:
Toll free: 1-888-228-0315
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