Larry Selk, who cannot speak or perform daily functions on his own, was raped in 2004 while living in College House, a group home operated by a ResCare's subsidiary in Roswell, New Mexico. The likely perpetrator was a group home employee who had been hastily hired after much of the College House staff was fired for using drugs and there was an urgent need for replacement staff. The man was hired with virtually no background check, which could have discovered problems in his past, and put on the job essentially untrained, according to trial evidence.
A lawsuit was brought on Selk's behalf by his sister and legal guardian, Rani Rubio, resulted in a jury award of $48 million in punitive damages. Res-Care appealed, resulting in the judge slicing away a significant chunk of a jury's historically high punitive damages award. The punitive damages award was reduced from $48 million to $9.6 million in an order that also denied the company, ResCare Inc., a new trial.
The ARC of New Mexico filed an Amicus brief in support of punitive awards for abusive providers. (An Amicus brief is a statement submitted by an individual or organization who is not a party to a lawsuit but has been permitted by the court to weigh-in on legal matters related to the case.) Unfortunately, the punitive damages awarded to the disabled man in this case were reduced, but the brief is nevertheless a valuable resource for anyone looking for information on this topic. It is a compendium of sources on abuse, especially sexual assault, on people with disabilities, showing how vulnerable adults are targeted by sexual predators, how crimes against them are under reported and often never reported to law enforcement, and how short staffing and frequent staff turnover in group homes increases the risk of abuse.
These are excerpts from the Amicus Brief:
- p 2: The lives of those with developmental disabilities cannot be improved... unless their lives are first made safe. Unfortunately, the deck is stacked against those with disabilities. Sexual predators see people with disabilities as powerless and vulnerable. Consequently, people with disabilities suffer abuse and rape at much higher rates than the general population.
- p 2: For large-scale providers such as RCI, only substantial punitive damages awards can force them to improve the quality of care they provide to Mr. Selk and others-and thus deter similar injuries in the future.
- p 11: Researchers recognize that high turnover among the staff increases the risk of sexual assault...When service providers fail to provide adequate staff and supervision, it also increases the risk of sexual violence.
- p 12: If a provider is on notice of but fails to correct systemic problems, this demonstrates a fundamental lack of respect for the rights of its residents.
- p14: While the estimates of sexual abuse of developmentally disabled people are staggering, it may only be the tip of the iceberg. As one New Mexico survey found, "[r]ape is significantly under-reported to law enforcement…"
- p 15: … the problem is probably bigger than suspected, the victims even more numerous. And yet, in part because the crimes are not reported, offenders go unpunished, free to commit more crimes-while service providers entrusted with the individuals' care and safety know little risk exists of being held accountable even though their own failures provided opportunity for the crime.
- p 15: Even when victims or their loved ones report sexual assault, the perpetrator usually is not punished.
- p 15 - 16: When society's response to sexual assault is devoid of serious penalties, it increases the perception that people with developmental disabilities are unequal in the eyes of the law.
- p 16: Civil lawsuits against service providers who injure their residents, rather than care for them, play a crucial role in ensuring equal rights and the safety of individuals with disabilities. If we can encourage these providers to fulfill their duty to their residents--or at least deter them from breaching that duty-sexual violence against vulnerable individuals will be reduced.