Community members were shocked in November of 2010 when a seventy-nine year old woman living with her daughter in Hope Mills, NC was found dead, in a very horrifying way. According to WRAL, the daughter, Nancy Byrd Lewis, 58, was charged last Wednesday with domestic abuse, neglect and exploitation of disabled or elderly adults.
This case provides us the opportunity to reflect on abuse of the disabled, a commonly overlooked type of abuse. North Carolina legally defines “disabled adult” as, “any person 18 years of age or over or any lawfully emancipated minor who is present in the State of North Carolina and who is physically or mentally incapacitated due to mental retardation, cerebral palsy, epilepsy or autism; organic brain damage caused by advanced age or other physical degeneration in connection therewith; or due to conditions incurred at any age which are the result of accident, organic brain damage, mental or physical illness, or continued consumption or absorption of substances.” The lengthy nature of this definition recognizes the many types of disability and is intended to offer legal protection to the broadest possible group.
Often a person’s disability, whether it is physical or mental, may make them more susceptible targets for abuse. This can be due to their increased dependence on others as well as their potential immobility. For example, some victims may be hesitant to leave their abusers because of an unwillingness to be a perceived burden on family or friends. Seemingly small things like a lack of a wheelchair acessible entrance to a domestic violence shelter also limit the choices disabled victims of domestic abuse can make.
Like all abuse, abuse affecting the disabled is not limited to the physical. Abusers of disabled persons may also seek to establish their control over their victim through sexual abuse, psychological abuse, such as leading the person to feel worthless and/or entirely dependent, and/or economic abuse like taking disability checks or denying access to banking accounts. Abuse of the disabled may also take the form of deprivation of needed services and/or medications. In regard to the Hope Mills case NBC 17 reported, “Lewis said her mother was given diabetes and high blood pressure medication in 2005, but never took her back to the doctor after that office visit.” This could be seen as an attempt by Lewis to maintain control over her mother and, unfortunately, is a common characteristic that we see in domestic violence relationships, whether mother/daughter, husband/wife or girlfriend/girlfriend.
We at FVPC believe that every individual has a right to a life free of abuse. We encourage anyone who is experiencing or who knows someone experiencing domestic violence to call our hotline at 919-929-7122. To make a report specifically about disabled adult abuse you may call the Orange County Department of Social Services at 919- 245-2800 and ask for the Adult Services worker on call.