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Police ignored, mishandled sex assaults reported by disabled

Giant palm trees stand at the main gate of the Sonoma Developmental Center, which houses about 500 patients.
Giant palm trees stand at the main gate of the Sonoma Developmental Center, which houses about 500 patients.
At Sonoma center, caregiver was cleared of abuse – and then molested second patient

Broken Shield Sex Abuse 197Injuries, then pregnancy

In 2006, the patient’s injuries changed. Bite marks broke her skin and bruises surfaced on her back and breasts. Court records show Jennifer accused a Sonoma caregiver of touching and bruising her. She showed the center’s employees and her mother the resulting injuries.

The mother said someone clearly had been grabbing Jennifer’s breasts with violent force. The bruises were unlike anything she had ever seen on her daughter.

“I can tell if a bruise was an accident because she bruises easily; I bruise easily,” she said. “That’s not a big deal. But I could tell when a bruise is really not a bruise, you know what I mean?”

A social worker at the Sonoma center told the mother that the Office of Protective Services had investigated the matter thoroughly, but detectives couldn’t prove Jennifer’s allegation that the caregiver had bruised her.

“Of course, it’s her word against his,” Jennifer’s mother said. “Nothing was done.”



Records show the institution’s doctors, nurses and caregivers overlooked or ignored her pregnancy until Jennifer was well into her second trimester. Jennifer’s disabilities make her incapable of giving consent to sex. Her mother discovered Jennifer’s swollen belly during a weekend visit at her family’s home in July 2007. Under state law, any sexual intercourse with a patient lacking the intellectual capacity to consent is considered rape.

Jennifer’s son was born by cesarean section in October. No one was arrested in Jennifer’s rape.

“I was a hands-on mom, and I fought for my daughter’s security,” Jennifer’s mother said. “And I still wasn’t able to protect her. Who protects these people?”

The month that Jennifer gave birth, the Office of Protective Services received a letter from a whistle-blower that named a janitor as the alleged rapist, but didn’t inform the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office about the lead for three months, according to court records from a lawsuit Jennifer’s family filed against the state.

By then, the accused janitor had fled the country, court records said.

Regardless, the institution’s officers did not attempt to gather physical evidence through a sex assault examination that might have supported criminal prosecution of Jennifer’s assailant. And the center’s internal records show that patients have continued to allege sex abuse in the unit where Jennifer lived.

Her family settled a civil lawsuit with state Department of Developmental Services for $100,000. Jennifer now lives in her own apartment. Like all California residents with developmental disabilities, Jennifer is entitled to and receives services from the state. 

Her mother and family members have hired a caregiver to take care of her. They are all women.

Few sex crimes referred for prosecution

Statewide, the Office of Protective Services referred just three sex crime cases to county district attorneys for prosecution since 2009, said Morrison with Disability Rights California. In those cases, officers did not collect any physical evidence to determine whether crimes occurred. Just one of those cases led to an arrest.

In one incident from January at the Sonoma Developmental Center, caregivers noticed that two female roommates appeared to have injuries suggesting abuse – bruises on their faces and arms. The caregivers told the Office of Protective Services, but there was no detailed investigation.

In May, another employee of the center caught a longtime caregiver, Rue Denoncourt, exposing himself to one of those female patients in a bathroom. The colleague reported the incident to the Office of Protective Services, which then notified the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

The sheriff’s office interviewed Denoncourt, who confessed to exposing himself and sexually abusing the victim’s roommate, forcing her to touch him while he masturbated.

Even after Denoncourt admitted to the abuse, records from the state Department of Public Health show neither the sheriff’s office nor the Office of Protective Services sent the victims to receive sexual assault examinations. If evidence of other assaults was available, it was lost.

No investigation took place into the bruises that were discovered on both women in January, although the health department raised suspicions about Denoncourt in its report.

Denoncourt pleaded no contest to a lewd conduct charge in August and is serving an eight-month prison term. The Sonoma County sheriff and district attorney declined to comment for this story.

Allegations of interference

Three former members of the Office of Protective Services allege that administrators and other employees at developmental centers have interfered with abuse investigations.

Pete Araujo, a former investigator at the Fairview Developmental Center in Orange County, said his commander refused to approve sex assault exams for victims. Araujo said his superiors provided no explanation for denying the exams, and no one within the force challenged the decisions.

“Their word was final,” said Araujo, who is now an investigator for the California State Lottery Commission. “They were the managers.”

Employees at the institutions have delayed notifying police of alleged sexual abuse for days, said Greg Wardwell, a 20-year veteran patrol officer and sergeant at the Sonoma center. The lost time can leave physical evidence open to contamination and witnesses vulnerable to coercion.

Wardwell, who retired in March 2011, said center administrators did not punish employees for withholding information about abuse.

“It’s very frustrating at the point that someone is genuinely victimized and you didn’t find out about it for four or five days,” Wardwell said. “There is no sanction at the point that somebody sits on the information.”

The Department of Developmental Services did not respond to the officers’ allegations of interference.

Policy hinders investigations

The Office of Protective Services’ own policy has made it difficult for officers to order sexual assault exams. For patients to receive an exam, the guidelines require that “a sexual assault occurred within the preceding 72 hours and there is potential for recovery of physical evidence of the recent sexual assault.”

The “and” is underlined and italicized in the written policy.

Experts on sex assault investigations said using the words “potential for recovery” threatens to shut off an investigation before it starts. Detectives cannot determine what evidence is present before a medical exam.

“That latter part shouldn’t even be in there,” said Linda Ledray, a forensic nurse and director of the Sexual Assault Resource Service in Minneapolis. “I mean, that’s crazy.”

Kim Lonsway, research director for End Violence Against Women International, agreed that the Office of Protective Services’ sex assault policy could undermine investigations.

“The tone of this is the exams are going to be the exception rather than the rule,” Lonsway said.

Further, the 72-hour time limit is outdated, said Hopewell, the Riverside police detective. Hopewell said physical evidence sometimes is recoverable two weeks after an assault. She will request a medical exam even in cases in which a victim was attacked two years earlier, because scars can be shown to support allegations.

Delgadillo, director of the state Department of Developmental Services, implemented the Office of Protective Services’ first policy on investigating sex assault four years ago. The department had no specific guidelines for police on investigating sex abuse before 2008, only that they be required to complete the a state minimum of four hours of training.

Experts said many cases are hampered because some investigators, administrators and even family members distrust allegations by the intellectually disabled. Detectives investigating sex crimes against the disabled often need special training in the nuances of extracting evidence from these types of patients. Such training has never been offered to the state police force.

“Even if it is reported, the victim is often not believed or is thought to be fantasizing or to have merely misinterpreted what occurred,” Joan R. Petersilia, a criminology professor at UC Irvine, wrote in a 2001 study of disabled victims. “This leaves the person with a disability continually vulnerable to victimization, because perpetrators come to learn they may victimize them without fear of consequences.”

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