Sexuality and Disability

, Volume 11, Issue 4, pp 287–294 | Cite as

Witness competency in people with mental retardation: Implications for prosecution of sexual abuse

  • Denise C. Valenti-Hein
  • Linda D. Schwartz


Victims with mental retardation have been excluded from the legal system based on the belief that they are incompetent to provide accurate, reliable testimony. Such restrictions contribute to the increased risk that people with mental retardation will be victimized. This article examines the complexity surrounding definitions of competency, as well as the mythology which serves to de-emphasize the abilities of victims to testify against an alleged perpetrator. The implications of the presumption of incompetency are highlighted through the example of sexual abuse. Empirical evidence and recent court cases are used to argue that people with mental retardation deserve access to the same standards of competency as the rest of the population.

Key words

Disability competency sexual abuse mental retardation laws 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Perry NW, Wrightsman LS:The Child Witness: Legal Issues and Dilemmas. London, Sage Publications, 1991Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Quinn KM: Competency to be a witness: A major child forensic issue.Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 14(4): 311–321, 1986Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Sobsey D, Varnhagen C: Sexual abuse, assault and exploitation of Canadians with disabilities. InChild Sexual Abuse: Critical Perspectives on Prevention, Intervention and Treatment, C Bagley, RJ Thomlinson (Eds.). Toronto, Wall and Emerson, 1991, pp. 203–216Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Saywitz KJ, Goodman GS, Nicholas E, Moan, SF: Children's memories of a physical examination involving genital touch: Implications for reports of child sexual abuse.Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 39(5): 682–691, 1991Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Goodman GS, Rudy C, Bottoms B, Aman C: Children's concerns and memory: Issues of ecological validity in the study of children's eyewitness testimony. InKnowing and Remembering in Young Children, R Fivush, J Hudson, (eds). Cambridge University Press, 1990Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Sigelman CK, Budd EC, Spanhel CL, Schoenrock CJ: When in doubt, say yes: Acquiescence in interviews with mentally retarded persons.Mental Retardation, April: 53–58, 1981Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Wheeler v. United States, 159 U.S. 523 (1895).Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Federal Rules of Evidence 601Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    American Bar Association. (1985).ABA Guidelines for the fair treatment of child witnesses in cases where child abuse is alleged. Washington, DC: AuthorGoogle Scholar
  10. 10.
    Bulkley, J. The impact of new child witness research on sexual abuse prosecutions. InPerspectives on Children's Testimony, SJ Ceci, DF Ross, MP Toglia (eds). New York, Springer Verlag, pp. 208–229Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Haugaard JJ: Judicial determination of children's competency to testify: Should it be abandoned?Professional Psychology Research and Practice 19(1): 102–107, 1988Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Berliner L, Barbieri MK: The testimony of the child victim of sexual assault.Journal of Social Issues 40(2): 125–137, 1984Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Goodman GS, Reed RS: Age differences in eyewitness testimony.Law and Human Behavior 10: 317–332, 1986.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Sieling v. Eyman, 478 F.2d 211, 214 (9th Cir. 1973)Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Dusky v. U.S., 362 U.S. 402 (1960)Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Westbrook v. Arizona, 348 U.S. 105 (1954)Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    American Association on Mental Retardation:Mental retardation: Definition, classification and systems of support Ninth Edition. Washington, DC: Author, 1992Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Ohio Rules of Evidence 601Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Chellsen JA: Retarded offenders: Assessment of trial competency.American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 4(4): 11–14, 1986Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Luckasson R: People with mental retardation as victims of crime. InThe Criminal Justice System and Mental Retardation: Defendants and Victims, RW Conley, R Luckasson, & GN Bouthilet (eds). Baltimore, Paul H Brookes, 1992, pp. 209–220Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Baladerian, NJ:Interviewing Skills To Use With Abuse Victims Who Have Developmental Disabilities. Washington, D.C.: National Aging Resource Center on Elder Abuse, 1992Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    McCartney, JR: Mentally retarded and nonretarded subjects long-term recognition memory.American Journal of Mental Retardation 92(3): 312–317, 1987Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Kail R:The Development of Memory in Children. New York, W.H. Freeman and Company, 1990Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Goodman GS, Golding JM, Haith MM: Jurors' reaction to child witnesses.Journal of Social Issues 40(2): 139–156, 1984Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Cole S: Facing the challenges of sexual abuse in persons with disabilities.Sexuality and Disability 7(3–4): 71–88, 1986Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Sobsey D, Mansell S: The prevention of sexual abuse of people with developmental disabilities.Developmental Disabilities Bulletin 18(2): 51–66, 1990Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Tharinger D, Horton CB, Millea S: Sexual abuse and exploitation of children and adults with mental retardation and other handicaps.Child Abuse & Neglect 14: 301–312, 1990Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Sobsey D, Doe T: Patterns of sexual abuse and assault.Sexuality and Disability 9(3): 243–259, 1991Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Hawaii v. Gonsalves, 706 P.2d 1333 (Hawaii Ct. App. 1985)Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Illinois v. Spencer, 457 N.E. 2d 473 (Ill. App. Ct. 1983)Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Louisiana v. Peters, 441 So. 2d 403 (La. Ct. App. 1983)Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Kaufhold M, VanderLaan R:Evaluating developmentally disabled victims of sexual abuse. (unpublished manuscript) 1988Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Human Sciences Press, Inc. 1993

Authors and Affiliations

  • Denise C. Valenti-Hein
    • 1
  • Linda D. Schwartz
    • 1
  1. 1.Institute for the Study of Developmental Disabilities (M/C 285), Mental Health ProgramUniversity of Illinois at ChicagoChicago

Personalised recommendations