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Five years ago, when we interviewed people with psycho-social disabilities for another project, they spoke to us about problems they had encountered in their childhood: social isolation, discrimination, bullying at school, violence and abuse they had experienced.

We tried to identify data on violence and abuse affecting children with disabilities in the EU, but found little, mostly from academic research. We therefore decided to collect up-to-date, specific information through desk research and 132 interviews with stakeholders in 13 MSs covering:

First, the national legal and policy frameworks in place;

Second, evidence on the prevalence, triggers, forms and context, challenges, as well as actions to tackle violence against children with disabilities.

There is a solid international human rights framework in place that we had hoped to find reflected in national legal and policy provisions in the EU. This includes two major international human rights instruments, the UN CRC and the UN CRPD, as well as, in a broader European context, the Lanzarote Convention on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. The Convention requires under Art 18 that States Parties criminalise sexual abuse committed against, amongst others, children with a "mental or physical disability or a situation of dependence". Art 28 requires States Parties to ensure that offences committed against a particularly vulnerable victim "may be taken into consideration as aggravating circumstances in the determination of the sanctions".

In parallel, the CoE Committee of Ministers provide useful guidance: For example, the 2005 Resolution on safeguarding adults and children with disabilities against abuse includes a detailed definition of abuse, requiring member states to ensure that people with disabilities have access to the criminal justice system, and that those who are victims of abuse can access redress and/or compensation at least to the same extent as other citizens. In 2009, the Committee of Ministers adopted policy guidelines on integrated national strategies for the protection of children from violence, calling for particular attention to protecting children with disabilities.

In the EU, Article 24 of our own Charter of Fundamental Rights guarantees all children a general right to protection, while Article 3 guarantees all individuals in the EU respect for their physical and mental integrity, and Article 26 recognises the right of persons with disabilities to benefit from measures to ensure their integration and participation in community life. Furthermore, EU secondary law, for example, the Directive on combating the sexual abuse, sexual exploitation of children and child pornography, as well as the Directive on Victims’ rights require specific protection measures for children with disabilities. Our research shows that Member States’ legislation protecting CWD from violence reflects these international standards through different approaches: legal provisions range from references in general criminal codes to specific legal instruments; in addition, corporal punishment is not prohibited in all Member States in all settings and the European Committee of Social Rights has received complaints regarding corporal punishment in BE, CZ, FR, IT, IRL, and SI (European Social Charter).

Member State criminal laws also define 'disability' variably: For example, in AT, BE, FR and RO, the law refers to a victim’s vulnerability, punishing crimes committed against “a defenceless or psychologically impaired person”, “invalid, sick or mentally disabled” persons, a person in an “obvious state of vulnerability”, or persons/children in a particular “state of health”. Other countries, such as GR and SE refer specifically to children with disabilities or a “mental disorder”. The language referring to disability varies and can be pejorative or even offensive, reflecting an older ‘medical approach’ to disability.

Austrian law for instance refers to “psychologically impaired persons”, and Romanian law to “mental alienation or debility”.

The majority of EU Member States provide for the protection of children with disabilities from violence in their criminal codes, and some have additional specialized legislation. However, the scope of legal protection differs: In some countries, they are explicitly mentioned in the context of a limited number of crimes, mainly relating to sexual offences, while in other countries they are included in other types of violence, such as abuse, incitement, battery, manslaughter or murder, and cover diverse settings, for example at home or at school.

In addition, criminal law in most Member States treats disability and age as aggravating circumstances for violent crimes. However, the legislation differs in terms of the scope of the provisions they cover, the language in which they are worded, and whether they refer directly or indirectly to children. Due to the variety in applicable legislative frameworks, for example, some Member States create separate self‑standing offences that incorporate the notion of age and vulnerability as aggravating circumstances, while others increase sanctions for existing offences when the victim has a disability or belongs to certain age groups.

Finally, for the criminal justice system to act a crime needs to be reported. Our research shows that professionals who work with children are legally obliged in almost all Member States to report child abuse, neglect and violence. However, only 15 MSs impose a reporting obligation on all professionals – elsewhere this obligation applies only to specific professionals, such as social workers or teachers.

Child protection policies across the EU invariably include references to children with disabilities. Some recognize that these children are particularly vulnerable to violence and abuse, but only some include specific and targeted measures, for example AT, CZ, DE, SI and ES.

The interviews with stakeholders confirmed that although violence and abuse against children with disabilities remains largely invisible in official statistics, a high prevalence of abuse against such children is suspected. UNICEF research estimates that globally children with disabilities are 3 to 4 times more likely to experience physical and sexual violence, as well as neglect, than non-disabled.

Children with disabilities can fall victim to violence in three main settings: schools, home, institutions. children with disabilities experience disability-specific forms of psychological, sexual and physical abuse, different to that experienced by children without disabilities, which can devastate their lives; this includes:

  • Sexual or other forms of violence motivated by prejudice towards disability,
  • Sexual abuse, for example during daily hygiene routines,
  • Violence in the course of treatment, as well as overmedication,

A number of factors increase the vulnerability of children with disabilities to violence and abuse:

  • Social isolation, stigma and higher reliance on care,
  • Appearing as ‘easy targets’, lacking the skills to protect themselves,
  • Barriers in reporting violence, or complaints might not be taken seriously,
  • Gender and ethnic, migrant or socioeconomic status can add additional layers of risk.

The impact of these factors, increasing the risk of abuse, is multiplied when child protection services are not equipped to respond effectively to the needs of children with disabilities.

Five key actions could make a difference for children with disabilities - while responsibility for these actions lies primarily with national authorities, the European Parliament and the Commission could assist by providing guidance and promoting their implementation:

  1. Develop a robust and inclusive legal and policy frameworks by
    • Improving judicial and non-judicial redress mechanisms, as well as victim support services to make them accessible to children with disabilities who are victims of violence and abuse and their families.
    • Ensuring that redress mechanisms provide age- and impairment- appropriate professional support.
    • Encouraging victims, families, friends or anyone involved to report incidents through active outreach policies.
  2. Strengthen child protection systems to make them integrated and inclusive – considering focal point for children with disabilities (CRC Gen. Com. No 9) by
    • Engaging all relevant operational actors, such as law enforcement, judicial authorities, social services, child protection agencies, immigration authorities, etc. to coordinate actions horizontally and vertically across governance structures (Ministries - central & local government) to provide inclusive support to children with disabilities.
  3. Strengthen de-institutionalisation efforts and ensure that existing institutions do not violate child rights until they are phased out by
    • Systematically inspecting and monitoring existing institutions
    • Ensuring that funding opportunities by ESIF are used to the fullest extent possible for swift transition to family-focused living arrangements in the community
  4. Support criminal justice response by
    • Targeted awareness raising, training, and capacity building of staff
    • Introducing and strengthening an interdisciplinary approach
  5. Raise awareness of the public, parents and professionals, such as teachers and care workers by
    • Promoting the social inclusion of children with disabilities
    • Alerting about the heightened risks of violence and abuse o Informing on where and how to report incidents