For a variety of reasons, people with special needs are more likely to suffer physical, mental and financial abuse than are others. Whether a physical disability prevents someone from protecting himself from bullying or a mental disability causes someone to be more trusting of people who would exploit her financially, the fact remains that people with special needs and their friends and families need to be more vigilant than most when it comes to recognizing and combating abuse.
The best way to prevent abuse in the first place is to remain active in your friend or loved-one’s life. If a person with special needs lives in a group home or nursing facility, simply having a family member or friend consistently physically present often makes staff more likely to respond to her needs. Being there also means that you will be more likely to spot signs of abuse quickly and be able to put a stop to problems before they become more serious.
Financial abuse can take many forms, but in most cases the problem comes up when a person with special needs has access to large sums of money that he can be persuaded to give away. One way to prevent this is to create and fund a special needs trust for the benefit of the person with special needs. The funds in the trust will be managed by an independent trustee who will serve as a buffer between the person with special needs and those who may take advantage of him.
If you decide not to pursue a special needs trust, a guardianship or conservatorship may have to be established to protect a person’s finances. Unfortunately, these procedures cost both time and money and require ongoing court supervision, which could be beneficial for preventing abuse but could also make management of assets cumbersome. Fortunately, many states permit limited guardianships that allow a person with special needs to maintain control over some elements of his life while ceding control to a guardian only when necessary for the protection of the person with special needs.
Abuse can occur despite your best efforts, so it pays to be on the lookout for signs that a person with special needs is being taken advantage of. Here are some things to look for:
- Unexplained bruising or other injuries
- Poor hygiene
- Improperly cared for injuries or infections
- An unfamiliar person brings the person with special needs to the bank
- Person with special needs cannot explain where money goes
- Bounced checks
- A caregiver or family member isolates the person with special needs from other family members or friends
If you think that a friend or loved one is being abused, immediately document your concerns and contact the proper authorities. Don’t be afraid to speak up if you recognize signs of abuse, and remember that the best prevention is to be involved to begin with.