Sunday, June 10, 2001

All Agreed the Retarded Woman Was Raped: Case Closed - Victim's ability to testify in doubt

All Agreed the Retarded Woman Was Raped: Case Closed - Victim's ability to testify in doubt
By Raja Mishra, Globe Staff
The Boston Globe - June 10, 2001

The wisp of a woman sat silent in her wheelchair.

Doctors, nurses, social workers, and police bustled in and out of the Brigham and Women's Hospital examination room that March 1998 morning, all with the same conclusion: She was raped.

Severely retarded, paralyzed, and practically mute, the 36-year-old woman usually thrived on affection, fixing her playful brown eyes and toothy grin on strangers. But that morning she was ashen.

Leaning beside the wheelchair, her mother whispered, "Who hurt you, baby?"

The woman hesitated, then stammered the first name of a caretaker at her state-funded residential home, recalled the mother. But despite what everyone in the room concluded, there would be no prosecution, no arrest, and no further investigation. Case closed.

A social worker dutifully typed out a report, listing the evidence indicating rape, explaining the case would not proceed. He concluded: "It should also be taken into account that there may be a perpetrator currently employed at the residence."

"It breaks my heart," said the Boston police officer who decided to abandon the woman's case.

The case offers a dramatic example of how the criminal justice system often fails the disabled. Her sexual assault was only the latest blow in a difficult journey through the state's social services system.

"I didn't know anything was wrong at first," said the mother, who now lives in Nashua, about her daughter's birth.

Neighbors in Mattapan, where the family lived in a small apartment, noticed that the infant rarely cried. She didn't even try to crawl. A local doctor was puzzled, sending the girl off to Children's Hospital for tests.

Over the years, her retardation progressively worsened and the cause remained a mystery. But the girl got by. Her five sisters and brother taught her to talk and care for herself. She attended a special-needs school. In many ways, she was like girls her age. But then there were the tantrums. As she grew in size, her outbursts frightened the family. In 1984, at age 19, the girl was institutionalized.

"It was the worst day of my life," said the mother. "But I couldn't care for her anymore."

One day, at her group home in Lee, the girl threw a nasty tantrum. The normal detention room was closed, so the administrators put her in a second-floor bedroom.

The girl tried to escape, pushing through a screen, according to her mother. The fall paralyzed her from the neck down and markedly diminished her ability to speak. Her slurred phrases were reduced to monosyllabic grunts with her mother and sisters. With everyone else, she screamed.

Her adult life unfolded in a series of group homes run by Vinfen, a private, Cambridge-based company specializing in such facilities. It was in a Dorchester group home, during a morning bath, that her attendant noticed cuts on and around the woman's vagina, according to state documents. The attendant did nothing.

The next day, a visiting nurse noticed the injury, as well as bruises on her thigh, flagging them as signs of sexual assault, according to documents.

She was taken to a specialist at Brigham and Women's Hospital where a rape test was performed, but it came up negative, according to documents. Unfortunately, investigators noted, she was bathed after the suspected rape, likely washing away any physical evidence.

Meanwhile, state authorities investigating the Dorchester home found something odd: The house's cable TV system was upgraded to include the Playboy and Spice adult channels, according to documents. Several staff members admitted to watching sexually explicit movies while on the job. But no one confessed to assaulting the woman.

The woman told her mother that one of the staff members hurt her. Four medical specialists concluded that she had been pinned down and sexually violated, according to documents.

But Boston police detectives assigned to the case already had cold feet. There was no hard evidence, so the woman's testimony would be crucial—and she could only utter thick-tongued moans. There was no prosecution.

Today, the woman lives in another Boston group home. Her mother visits every other week. "In my heart, I know they won't get away with it," she said. "You reap what you sow."

No comments: