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.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Perry NW, Wrightsman LS:The Child Witness: Legal Issues and Dilemmas. London, Sage Publications, 1991
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, 1986
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. 203–216
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, 1991
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, 1990
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, 1981
Wheeler v. United States, 159 U.S. 523 (1895).
Federal Rules of Evidence 601
American Bar Association. (1985).ABA Guidelines for the fair treatment of child witnesses in cases where child abuse is alleged. Washington, DC: Author
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. 208–229
Haugaard JJ: Judicial determination of children's competency to testify: Should it be abandoned?Professional Psychology Research and Practice 19(1): 102–107, 1988
Berliner L, Barbieri MK: The testimony of the child victim of sexual assault.Journal of Social Issues 40(2): 125–137, 1984
Goodman GS, Reed RS: Age differences in eyewitness testimony.Law and Human Behavior 10: 317–332, 1986.
Sieling v. Eyman, 478 F.2d 211, 214 (9th Cir. 1973)
Dusky v. U.S., 362 U.S. 402 (1960)
Westbrook v. Arizona, 348 U.S. 105 (1954)
American Association on Mental Retardation:Mental retardation: Definition, classification and systems of support Ninth Edition. Washington, DC: Author, 1992
Ohio Rules of Evidence 601
Chellsen JA: Retarded offenders: Assessment of trial competency.American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 4(4): 11–14, 1986
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. 209–220
Baladerian, NJ:Interviewing Skills To Use With Abuse Victims Who Have Developmental Disabilities. Washington, D.C.: National Aging Resource Center on Elder Abuse, 1992
McCartney, JR: Mentally retarded and nonretarded subjects long-term recognition memory.American Journal of Mental Retardation 92(3): 312–317, 1987
Kail R:The Development of Memory in Children. New York, W.H. Freeman and Company, 1990
Goodman GS, Golding JM, Haith MM: Jurors' reaction to child witnesses.Journal of Social Issues 40(2): 139–156, 1984
Cole S: Facing the challenges of sexual abuse in persons with disabilities.Sexuality and Disability 7(3–4): 71–88, 1986
Sobsey D, Mansell S: The prevention of sexual abuse of people with developmental disabilities.Developmental Disabilities Bulletin 18(2): 51–66, 1990
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, 1990
Sobsey D, Doe T: Patterns of sexual abuse and assault.Sexuality and Disability 9(3): 243–259, 1991
Hawaii v. Gonsalves, 706 P.2d 1333 (Hawaii Ct. App. 1985)
Illinois v. Spencer, 457 N.E. 2d 473 (Ill. App. Ct. 1983)
Louisiana v. Peters, 441 So. 2d 403 (La. Ct. App. 1983)
Kaufhold M, VanderLaan R:Evaluating developmentally disabled victims of sexual abuse. (unpublished manuscript) 1988
About this article
Cite this article
Valenti-Hein, D.C., Schwartz, L.D. Witness competency in people with mental retardation: Implications for prosecution of sexual abuse. Sex Disabil 11, 287–294 (1993). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01102173
- sexual abuse
- mental retardation