A New Lawsuit Opens a Window Into Alleged Sexual Abuse of Developmentally Disabled Oregonians

Federal figures show extraordinary levels of victimization among a vulnerable population.

M.K. had never really had a close friend. And, in his late 20s, he’d certainly never had an intimate relationship with a woman.

But Ishah Fehon entered his life in a big way in 2019. She got him out of his Beaverton apartment and opened a new world to him. They barbecued, went to the beach, and played Frisbee golf. And, allegedly, they had sex.

Except Fehon was not M.K.’s girlfriend. She was his paid caregiver. He suffers from autism spectrum disorder and a number of associated impairments. And Oregon law says intimate contact between a caregiver and a client is sexual abuse.

A new lawsuit filed May 3 in Multnomah County Circuit Court exposes a thorny issue that gets little attention from law enforcement or the courts—the sexual abuse of disabled Oregonians like M.K. (WW does not identify alleged victims of sexual abuse without their consent.)

“This is a vulnerable population who has inherent difficulty advocating for itself, and people who are highly dependent on caregivers, often in their home,” says M.K.’s attorney, Peter Janci of the Portland law firm Crew Janci. “And there’s very little supervision.”

The lawsuit Janci filed this week alleges that two companies responsible for M.K.’s care—Self-Determination Resources Inc., a Beaverton nonprofit, and Destination: Autonomy LLC, a for-profit company headquartered in Hillsboro—were negligent in the provision of his care, resulting in “physical abuse of a vulnerable person.” The lawsuit seeks $6.25 million in damages.

SDRI executive director Dan Peccia declined to comment. Destination: Autonomy and Fehon did not respond to requests for comment.

Federal statistics show people with disabilities are four times more likely than people without disabilities to be sexually abused. And of those who are abused, people with disabilities are only about half as likely to report their abuse to police.

In Oregon, that vulnerability may be magnified by state policies that seek to integrate people with disabilities into the mainstream. Advocates say that approach is vastly preferable to institutionalization but may lack necessary safeguards and suffer from a complaint system that rarely detects abuse.

Beth Brownhill, who runs the Crime Survivor Project at Disability Rights Oregon, says the abuse statistics for developmentally disabled people such as M.K. are staggering.

“More than 90% of people with developmental disabilities will be sexually assaulted,” Brownhill says. “Half will be assaulted more than 10 times over the course of their lifetimes.”

The new lawsuit, filed on behalf of M.K., a Beaverton man who is now 31, describes a situation that Brownhill says is all too common.

M.K. lives on his own but relies on a paid caregiver to help him with tasks such as grocery shopping, medication management, social skills, and integrating into the community.

Like other states, Oregon promotes maximum independence for people with developmental disabilities. That policy led to the closure in 2000 of the last major group institution in the state, the Fairview Training Center, and a focus ever since on helping people with disabilities live the fullest lives possible.

The Oregon Office of Developmental Disabilities Services uses state and federal funding to provide programming for people who might once have been lodged in Fairview or otherwise closeted away. The agency serves about 30,000 people a year at cost of around $1.6 billion, numbers that have risen sharply since Oregon implemented Obamacare in 2013.

To serve clients such as M.K., the state contracts with brokerage firms such as Self-Determination Resources Inc., which in turn contracts with caregivers such as Destination: Advocacy.

“This a big industry,” says Janci, M.K.’s attorney. “There are hundred of millions of dollars that flow through these brokerages to care agencies. At the agency level, we believe there is an incentive to receive revenue at the highest level and staff at the most inexpensive level.”

M.K. says he’s had caregivers most of his life and has been entirely reliant on them since moving into an apartment by himself about five years ago. Fehon became his caregiver in 2019. She was supposed to spend about 10 hours a week with him. But their time together veered into prohibited territory.

According to a Washington County Developmental Disabilities program investigation completed last year, M.K. and Fehon disagreed about the extent of their sexual contact, but after interviewing both and reviewing text messages between them, investigator Rich Garcia found “due to the preponderance of evidence, the allegation of sexual abuse is therefore substantiated.” (Records show the Washington County Sheriff’s Office also compiled a report on the allegations, but no criminal charges have been filed.)

Janci, who specializes in representing victims of sexual abuse, questions whether the state’s ability or willingness to safeguard people with disabilities has kept pace with the problem of predation.

The state recorded 107 complaints of sexual abuse against people with intellectual or developmental disabilities such as autism between 2019 and 2021. Fewer than 12% of those complaints were sustained. And statistics show that more than two-thirds of the investigations were completed late.

“I have significant concerns about whether our state is effectively capturing the abuse that is happening here,” Janci says. “We need to ask some questions about how these investigations are being conducted and whether we are doing everything we can to give voice to this vulnerable population.” (A 2021 audit by the Oregon secretary of state praised ODDS for providing services to a large number of people but highlighted shortcomings in oversight: “There are no ODDS staff who are dedicated full time to any part of the complaints process,” the audit found.)

Janci says M.K.’s condition makes him particularly susceptible to manipulation and grooming—and unprepared to deal with the fallout from his abuse. The lawsuit says the improper sexual relationship caused M.K.’s preexisting anxiety and depression to spiral and that he prepared a plan—later thwarted—to kill himself.

“It broke my spirit,” M.K. says. “It destroyed me emotionally. I’ve always had trouble trusting people. Not being able to trust caregivers now is terrible. I no longer have all that I’ve tried to build to make my life better.”