Advocates are hoping the fourth time will be the charm for a bill that closes loopholes in the state’s sexual assault laws concerning victims with developmental disabilities.
The bill has been proposed in three previous legislative sessions, but Anna Doroghazi, public policy director at Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services (ConnSACS), foresees successful passage this time around.
“I think before there was a bit of hesitation because there was still an active court case,” Doroghazi said, referencing State v. Richard Fourtin, a case that the state Supreme Court decided in 2012. In their ruling, the justices said a person is not considered physically helpless under Connecticut law unless their disability leaves them unconscious.
The case involved woman whose disabilities include cerebral palsy, mental retardation, and hydrocephalus — a condition that allows fluid to build-up in the skull and leads to brain swelling — was not deemed helpless because of her ability to bite, kick, and scratch, despite her lack of nonverbal communication and inability to walk.
“Now that the state Supreme Court has issued their decision there’s really no going back, it’s kind of established precedent at this point,” Doroghazi said. “We can really clearly see what gap we need to fill in.”
That gap to which she is referring is the expansion of what it means to be physically helpless under Connecticut law.
“The term physically helpless has an unusual and very limited definition,” Lauren MacDonald, a student at Quinnipiac’s School of Law, said in her testimony before the Judiciary Committee on Monday. “This demanding standard for qualifying as physically helpless deprives protection to virtually anyone who’s awake and able to move. As a result, few people meet the standard.”
These standards make it difficult to hold sexual offenders accountable if they assault someone with a physical or developmental disability, according to Doroghazi.
About 10 people came out to testify in favor of the bill at Monday’s Judiciary Committee public hearing, and 21 submitted written testimony in favor of the proposed bill.
“Each session that’s gone by, more and more people have become aware of the issue and interested in the issue,” Doroghazi said.
The bill also has gained the support of Judiciary Committee Co-Chairman Rep. Gerald Fox, D-Stamford, who said in a ConnSACS press release that he believes that “the bill before the committee will better serve people with disabilities” and he is “committed to seeing it signed into law.”
The same press release cited statistics that show those with disabilities are sexually assaulted twice as often as those without a disability.
“Demanding a standard for qualifying as physically helpless creates a tragic paradox for people with disabilities,” MacDonald said. “They are disabled enough to be preyed upon, but not disabled enough to be protected under the laws.”
In addition to broadening the definition of what it means to be physically disabled under state law, the bill intends to rid the current law of what advocates described as “offensive language,” including the term “mentally defective.” The bill seeks to replace this term with the phrase “impaired because of mental disability or disease.”
Doroghazi stressed the importance of the bill’s language and the difficulties faced while crafting it, some of which included finding the balance between protecting the rights of a person with disabilities in cases of sexual assault, but making the language clear enough that it does not prohibit consensual sex for those who are disabled.
“We just want to make sure that for people who really truly can’t consent in a particular circumstance that there’s protection available,” Doroghazi said.