This study focuses on older adolescents with intellectual disabilities involved in child welfare systems and their risk of sexual victimization during transition to young adulthood. Some studies, while limited, have pointed to elevated rates of intellectual disabilities among this population. Children and adults with intellectual disabilities are at greater risk of sexual victimization than their counterparts without disabilities in child welfare and general populations.
Studies that identify protective factors for older adolescents associated with sexual victimization are needed. This study examined the relationships between demographic factors, intellectual ability, social supports, and neighborhood cohesion with sexual assault and engagement in transactional sex of transitioning adolescents involved in child welfare systems. It was hypothesized that higher levels of intellectual ability, social supports, and neighborhood cohesion would be inversely associated with sexual assault and engaging in transactional sex.
Utilizing a secondary analysis of data of the second National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW II), a sample of older adolescents between the ages of 18 and 19.5 years was identified. The Mplus (Version 8) statistical package was used as Mplus addresses missing data in a complex survey design. Logistic regression analyses examined the relationships between sexual assault and engaging in transactional sex with levels of intellectual ability, social supports, and neighborhood cohesion. Gender, race and ethnicity, poverty level, and living outside the family home were also considered in the regression models.
Results indicate 2.5% of the adolescents experienced a sexual assault in the past 12 months and 3.9 % had engaged in transactional sex in the past 6 months. The mean intelligence score for this group of adolescents was one standard deviation below the normed average (M=84.62, SD=19.60). Being female was associated with greater odds of experiencing a sexual assault in the past 12 months (OR=17.29, p=.025). Higher intellectual ability scores were associated with lesser odds of engagement in paid sexual activity in the last 6 months (OR=.92, p=.002).
Conclusions and Implications:
This study highlights the vulnerability of females and adolescents with intellectual disabilities to sexual victimization as they transition from child welfare systems involvement. Given the high levels of disability among child welfare involved adolescents, planning for enhanced supports and community connections as they exit child welfare systems is essential. Implications for policy and practice include training child welfare workers and families to screen for developmental and learning disabilities at the onset of child welfare involvement and provision of consistent sexual and reproductive health care to all adolescents. Training caregivers, case managers, and youth to recognize the signs of sexual assault and exploitation can lead to prevention of sexual victimization.
Finally, the implications for prevention of sexual victimization during transition and into adulthood for this group of older adolescents in light of recent legislation such as the Family First Prevention Act of 2018 and the Prevention of Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014 are explored.