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Sexual Abuse in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community

Catalina McCarter

March 26, 2015

Sexual Abuse In The Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community


In the United States, thirteen percent of people over the age of twelve  have significant hearing loss in both ears; that's roughly 30 million people (US Department For Health And Human Services, 29 Apr. 2015). As you can see from those numbers, the deaf community makes up a significant amount of our population. Yet, most people know nothing about them, their community or the problems they are facing. One of the problems that is significantly affecting the deaf community is the sexual abuse of deaf children. The sexual abuse in deaf schools and churches is running rampant in the deaf community, with little to no action being taken against the perpetrators of these heinous acts. Schools and churches sweep the allegations under the rug, not wanting the bad press that comes with such claims. As for parents, they are often so afraid that their kid's school will be shut down and that their child's only place in the deaf community will be lost, that they regularly don't press charges.

            According to a statistics put out by the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, fifty four percent of boys who are deaf have been sexually abused, compared to ten percent of hearing boys. Fifty percent of girls who are deaf have been sexually abused, compared to twenty five percent of girls who are hearing (Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, 25 Mar. 2015). While these statistics are frightening they are not all that surprising. It is hard enough for a child who is not deaf to speak up when that kind of thing happens to them. When you add a child who likely already has a difficult time communicating, it becomes almost impossible for them to come forward. Often deaf children don't know the sign language to communicate with a parent about what has happened to them. If the child does know the signs, it is very likely that their parent may not know them if they are not deaf like their child (Teichroeb, Ruth. 27 Nov. 2001).

Finding a school for your deaf or hard of hearing child is hard enough for a parent, but now there is the added possibility that the school you choose for your child could have a dangerous culture of sexual abuse under the surface. For over a decade, public schools have been required by law to report campus crimes to the federal government, so that families can evaluate safety, in addition to academics, when picking their child's school. Sadly, the same is not required of schools for the deaf (Teichroeb, Ruth. 27 Nov. 2001). This makes it virtually impossible for a parent to know if their child's school is safe. When analyzing the amount of allegations that are being found to have been covered up by school administrations, it is more than likely that your child's school is not safe. Schools don't want the bad press that comes with sexual abuse or rape allegations, so they cover them up or deal with them "in house." Carl Barger, former Superintendent of the Arkansas School for the Deaf, was found guilty in August of 2002 of telling a school official not to call state authorities after a student claimed an interpreter had made sexual advances toward him. Arkansas School for the Deaf is not alone. Two alleged rapes, eight molestations and seven cases of sexual harassment were reported at the Oregon School for the Deaf during the 2001 school term, but school officials downplayed the incidents and even delayed reporting some to police (Teichroeb, Ruth. 27 Nov. 2001). At an Eastern deaf school in the town of Wilson, a dorm counselor was fired in May, 1998, after a seventeen year old multi handicapped boy told authorities he'd been molested, police investigated, but no charges were filed. The school later rehired the counselor after he appealed his dismissal (Teichroeb, Ruth. 27 Nov. 2001). It is clear that the current system is failing deaf students.

Clearly schools can't be counted on to protect and help deaf children, but what about the parents? What are parents doing to end the sexual abuse and protect their children? Parents of deaf children are reluctant to make trouble for the residential schools they rely on. According to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders, ninety percent of deaf children grow up in hearing families. For these families, residential schools offer one of the few places their deaf children can find a community of others like them. Parents know that reporting sexual abuse could result in the closing of their child's school, this is something most parents aren't willing to risk, often causing them to decide not to report incidents when they occur. "Residential schools are the center of culture for the deaf community," says Patricia Sullivan, a psychologist at Boys Town National Research Hospital in Nebraska. Parents are put in the difficult position of risking their child's safety by not reporting sexual abuse to the police, or risking their child losing their link to the deaf world.  

Sadly, one of the places many people go for safety and comfort is one of the most dangerous places for these children. Priests at churches are one of the largest group of perpetrators of these heinous acts against deaf children. Much like the situation with schools, little to no action is being taken to punish the adults responsible for the abuse, and often it is covered up completely. Between the years of 1950 and 1974, an American priest  Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, who worked at a renowned school for deaf, is believed to have molested as many as 200 boys. He was even promoted to run the school in 1963, even after multiple students had told the church that he was a sexual predator. It wasn't until 1996, with a multitude of sexual assault complaints being made, that the church discussed defrocking the priest. Sadly he never was defrocked and never faced any legal ramifications (Goodstein, Laurie. 24 mar. 2010).       

In more recent years, although more attention  is being payed to this issue, it's not nearly enough. No laws have been put into place to force deaf schools to report their stats on sexual abuse at their school to the government. It is equally important for schools to implement a better screening process for teachers, to ensure that no known sex offenders are hired.  Something that could help a lot, but has yet to be set up, is a program to teach parents the importance of talking to their deaf child about sexual abuse. Parents need to educate their deaf children on how to stay safe when it comes to sexual predators, and communicate to their kids that they should always feel safe to come to them if they are the victim of sexual abuse. This is a difficult conversation to have with your child, and many parents don't know at what age their child should be educated on this type of thing or what they should say to them. A program teaching parents the best ways to educate their child without frightening them could go a long way. One of the few efforts to raise awareness and money to fight the problem is the Break The Silence Run. Started in 2008, the run was founded by GVSP under the guidance of Stairway Foundation (GMA News Online. 28 Mar. 2013). Unfortunately, the run has yet to become widely known and there is no evidence of its continuing after 2013.

Sexual abuse in the deaf community is a significant problem. Deaf children are more vulnerable than most and are being taken advantage of. Schools and churches are sweeping the issue under the rug to avoid getting a bad reputation, and parents are reluctant to report issues to the police out of fear of their child's school being shut down.


Work Cited

Berke, Jamie. "Sexualy Abused Deaf Students." About Health. N.p., 18 June 2014. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.

"Break the Silence Run: Stop Deaf Child Sexual Abuse." GMA News Online. N.p., 28 Mar. 2013. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

"Disability Community." Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs. N.p., 25 Mar. 2015. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

Goodstein, Laurie. "Vatican Declined to Defrock U.S. Priest Who Abused Boys." The New York Times. The New York Times, 24 Mar. 2010. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

"Quick Statistics." [NIDCD Health Information]. US Department For Health And Human Services, n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.




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