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Another Voice: Intellectual or developmental disabilities may be at the root of some sex offenses

By John M. Keesler

Articles in the June 6 and 28 editions of The Buffalo News focused on the movement of “sex offenders” from West Seneca to North Collins and North Buffalo. The earlier article identified the individuals as “high-level sex offenders” but failed to explicitly indicate that they were diagnosed with intellectual/developmental disabilities (IDD).

Both articles focused solely on the sex-offending behavior. However, it is because of their IDD that these individuals qualify for social services.

In the June 6 article, Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns stated that the individuals were “very dangerous” and that incident reports indicated workers were “cursed at, threatened and … punched.” Challenging behavior is not uncommon among individuals with IDD, regardless of any history of sexual offending, with studies presenting rates of 50 percent or more.

Both articles failed to note that individuals with IDD might be labeled as sex offenders for a behavior that occurred at any point in their life. While some might have active sexual tendencies toward youth, some may have engaged in behaviors deemed “sexual offending” because of insufficient age-appropriate opportunities, sexual education, social skills, insight and/or support – without explicit tendencies toward minors. In addition, compromised intellectual capacity can significantly influence behavior.

When individuals with IDD and sexual-offending histories are placed in group homes, they are provided extensive supports, well beyond those provided to “typical” sex offenders residing in the community. With the most recent focus on North Buffalo, it is important to note that more than 10 registered sex offenders live in the 14201 ZIP code, and more than 600 in the Buffalo area, most of whom likely do not have the supports afforded by group homes. Yet this handful of individuals with IDD seem to be the spectacle for communities.

For more than a decade, I have worked with individuals with IDD who exhibited challenging behavior, some of whom also had histories of sexual offending. These individuals can be successful in the community with the right supports. Focusing on them as “sex offenders” or “dangerous people” is often a misrepresentation that overshadows their IDD diagnosis, and promotes stigmas and stereotypes.

While organizations serving this population have a responsibility to educate the community, they often fall short in doing so. However, government leaders have the potential to influence the community – for better or worse. Together, through proactive strategies, advocacy, community education and intersystem collaboration, the success of individuals with IDD and the community at large can be achieved.

John M. Keesler is a licensed master social worker and a doctoral candidate in the School of Social Work at the University at Buffalo.