State looks to protect disabled from sexual assault

New legislation currently being debated in Hartford could expand the enforceability of sexual assault charges.

The state’s Judiciary Committee is considering legislation that would broaden the definition of physical helplessness in sexual assaults to include people with severe mental and physical disabilities. Although similar legislation was proposed in three previous legislative sessions, it has gained more traction this year after the state Supreme Court ruled in the 2012 case State v. Fourtin that a man who had sexual contact with a woman with cerebral palsy was not guilty of sexual assault. The woman, who could not walk or talk, was technically not physically helpless because she could have expressed unwillingness by kicking, biting or screaming.

The bill currently under review would expand the definition of helplessness to encompass anyone physically unable to resist an act of sexual contact. That would include people with severe disabilities as well as people who are unconscious or physically restrained, encompassing the circumstances of a 1987 case in which a woman was allegedly sexually touched by a paramedic while she was on the way to the hospital and physically restrained.

“It’s hard to fault the court for doing their job,” said Anna Doroghazi, director of public policy and communications at Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services or ConnSACS. “They pointed out a loophole, and the law is not as robust as we’d hoped.”

The challenge for lawmakers in crafting such a bill has been to ensure that they do not inadvertently outlaw adults with severe disabilities from engaging in sexual activity if they so choose. Previous iterations of the bill never passed because members of the disability community feared that the bills’ wording would prohibit people with disabilities from having intimate contact.

“We all know who we want to protect — the people who are most vulnerable,” said Rep. Gerry Fox, the House co-chair of the Judiciary Committee. “We just want to make sure that the umbrella isn’t so big that we don’t include people we don’t want to.”

Fox said that in previous years, the Judiciary Committee feared its language would not withstand an appeal if a person were to be convicted under a broadened sexual assault law. However, he added that the analysis of the 2012 court decision helped his committee include more precise language in this year’s bill — language that has gained the support of disability advocates and looks poised to become law.

“This time around, there does appear to be consensus among state attorneys, human rights and advocacy groups, and there does not appear to be any opposition to it,” said Molly Cole, executive director of the Connecticut Council on Developmental Disabilities. “In fact, we are very hopeful that it will pass this time.”

The Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on expanding the definition of physical helplessness on Monday.

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