COLUMBUS, Ohio — When people with disabilities become victims of crime, neglect or other maltreatment, investigations can easily fall short.

Many victims cannot communicate easily or even verbally. Those who receive assistance from multiple caregivers are sometimes told the suspect list is too long.

And specialized crime-victim services and forensics are rarely available.

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“It just seems like it never makes it to prosecution,” said Melody Burba, a Dayton-area resident who is an advocate for herself and others with developmental disabilities.

A newly formed nonprofit organization is working to address the problems by establishing one-stop centers throughout Ohio that are equipped to serve adults with disabilities who are victims or witnesses to abuse, maltreatment or neglect.

“Crime victims with disability has been an issue without the proper supports, without the proper interview techniques and without the proper services,” said Katherine Yoder, executive director of the new Adult Advocacy Centers. “Prosecution rates are really dismal.”

Such obstacles are not unique to Ohio. But, Yoder said, the state will be the first to develop centers and employ a disability-specific model that’s coordinated with law enforcement, medical professionals, case managers and others.

“There has been so much interest in what we’re doing, both locally and nationally,” she said.

Whether the offenses are nonviolent cases of theft — Burba and her sister have faced many such losses — or more serious assaults, experts say interviews and evidence-collection processes often hit snags.

“We have each paid to have a locked door put on our bedroom,” said Burba, whose sister also has disabilities. “It really messes with your whole perspective. You need to trust people, but you can’t.”

Adult Advocacy Centers surveyed Ohio county boards of developmental disabilities last fall and received 35 responses. Of those, just 17 percent reported that crimes against people with disabilities are regularly taken to a grand jury in their county.

About half indicated that a lack of resources is the biggest barrier to providing crime-victim services to people with disabilities.

The Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities is the only public agency in Ohio and among the few nationally with an investigator who works alongside city police.

“Since I’ve been here, we’ve advanced miles in the number of cases investigated,” said Toby Paine, a board of disabilities investigator with a desk at the Columbus Division of Police. “It’s a priceless partnership.”

Still, Paine knows there are always ways to learn and improve. She eagerly attended a recent training session offered by Adult Advocacy Centers, which is working at various sites until the first of 10 planned centers opens next year in central Ohio.

“The class was just invaluable for someone like me,” Paine said. “The part I wish they would have spent three or four days on was how you interview someone who doesn’t speak. How do you communicate?”

People with disabilities are an especially vulnerable population, and even those who can speak clearly might be hesitant or intimidated about reporting offenses.

Paine recalled the case of one young man whose family home had no heat and no electricity, the latter leaving him unable to use and recharge his motorized wheelchair. Relatives were abusing drugs and neglecting his needs.

“I went to the house at an odd hour and he crawled out and said, ‘I’m fine,'” Paine said.

He wasn’t, and she was able to put together a case that allowed him to move to a safe home.

Paine is happy to do all she can to strengthen cases and help provide support to victims. As she was sitting in the Adult Advocacy Centers training class, “I got a call from the police and they needed me to help them interview someone,” she said. “I’m humbled when they ask for my help.”

Yoder said the response from disability-services professionals, law-enforcement officers and the medical community to Adult Advocacy Centers has been overwhelmingly positive.

“We essentially are the first in the world to have centers and to be addressing this population this way,” she said, adding that protocols also could benefit seniors and people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. “Ohio is in a groundbreaking position.”

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