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When elderly women are victims of rape, no one wants to talk about it

Young women tend to be the face of sexual violence. Advocates say that leaves older survivors to reckon with the trauma of sexual assault in the dark.

INDIANAPOLIS — A man charged Tuesday in a series of Indianapolis rapes allegedly targeted older women who lived alone. Police said Darrell Goodlow, 37, sometimes posed as a utility worker to break into the women’s homes, then sexually assaulted them.   

Court documents also show how, in recounting the horror of those brutal attacks at the hands of a man authorities called a serial rapist, many victims said they believed their age played a part in why were targeted.

In one case, a victim told police Goodlow intentionally removed her hearing aid prior to the assault in an attempt to confuse her.  Another victim said Goodlow knocked her to the floor prior to the assault. When she could not get up on her own, he helped her up, then reportedly raped her.

For local elder abuse advocates, the Goodlow case highlights a sobering reality that age does not protect people from the threat of rape or sexual violence.

RELATED: Indianapolis serial rape suspect facing 57 charges in attacks over more than a year

Of the some 463,364 women who are raped in the United States every year, three percent are over the age of 60. Yet, within the larger conversation of sexual assault, victim advocates say this demographic is ignored.

Erica Reichert is a director with the Center For At-Risk Elders, and has experience working with elderly victims of sexual violence. She said it is common for older survivors of sexual assault to bear the trauma of what happened in silence.

“Unfortunately elders and people who experience sexual violence are often prime targets for people wishing to do them harm, because they are less likely to report. They don’t know what to do. And so they just hide it and just, suffer shame,” Reichert said.  

That’s even as that same 60+ age group faces a unique set of challenges in the aftermath of sexual assault. A study from The Elder Abuse Center in Pennsylvania said older victims suffer more genital trauma from sexual assault than younger victims and are less likely to report the assault than younger people, with one report estimating 28% of sexual assaults against elderly people go unreported. 

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Older victims of sexual assault are less likely to report it than other populations, reports say.

“A lot of the very limited resources that we have in our community to address sexual assault, and domestic violence, and victims of crime tend to perceive their service populations as being towards, you know, younger women. Those people don't think of a sexual assault victims as being elderly. So there’s just not a lot of resources, not a lot of attention, not a lot of funding,” Reichart said. 

Yet local sexual assault organizations continue to see, and have always worked with, a number of elderly victims. Sandra Ziebold is the executive director of Beacon of Hope Crisis Center in Indianapolis, a non-profit which specializes in victim advocacy services for domestic violence and sexual assault victims. 

In August, her organization served 130 new victims of domestic violence. Twenty of those victims who requested safety and support were over the age of 50, and four of them reported elder abuse.  

“I think, sadly, there isn't a lot spoken about the sector, but it certainly exists, is certainly there. We're certainly seeing it in our data within our agency,” Ziebold said.

RELATED: Greenwood police seek suspect in rape of elderly woman

Much of what we do know about elderly victims of sexual assault centers on the experiences of people in caregiver situations. The scant amounts of studies that do exist on elder sexual assault show many cases against elderly people were committed by people who know them, usually primary caregivers. 

A coalition of sexual assault advocates from Maryland found about 83% of elder sexual abuse victims live at an institutional care center, like a nursing home. 

The report also found spouses and partners were more frequently identified as perpetrators of sexual assault against older victims.

Credit: WTHR
Nursing homes and other care facilities can permit visitation again under Stage 5 of the state's reopening plan.

I've served elders who were sexually assaulted by staff in nursing homes. And typically what happens is a staff member gets a job in a nursing home, maybe an aide or something like that, and takes advantage of that role to sexually assault people,” she said.

Assault that happen outside care facilities is even less understood. Police said the women Goodlow allegedly targeted were reportedly all women aged 58-78, mostly living alone, sometimes just miles away from his home on the east side. A report from the Pew Research Group released in March estimated 27% of adults ages 60 and older live alone in the U.S. compared with 16% of adults in the 130 countries and territories studied.

Advocates believe that particular variable can open up older victims to more violent, break-in situations in which they experience sexual assault. 

In June, a 70-year-old woman was forced behind a Bronx stairwell at gunpoint and raped by a masked man. In 2019, an Indianapolis man was accused of raping two women, aged 91 and 77. In that case, the man, Samuel L. Patterson, 56, also faced charges of breaking into the victim’s home.

RELATED: Report: Death penalty being sought in case where man allegedly raped, killed elderly woman

“I think that older couples, or older individuals who are living independently in a community by themselves, tend to be targeted by criminals for home invasions, burglaries and scam assaults, different things like that - because they're targeted as being vulnerable to someone wishing they could get away with something like this,” Reichert said.

Older women also bear the double burden of sexist and ageist stereotypes in the midst of assault.

The existence of older women who have been sexually violated directly refutes many stereotypes about sexual assault survivors - that women provoke men by wearing revealing clothes, that people who don’t fight attackers off are not real victims of sexual assault, or even that victims need to be able to accurately account in detail the specifics of their assault. Those stereotypes may not apply to older victims who have been assaulted, and so their experience is dismissed. 

“A lot of elderly who experienced sexual assault, they may be physically or cognitively incapable of fighting back. That doesn't make it their fault, right?” Reichert said. “In a memory care unit, a lot of the elders may not have verbal communication anymore, and they may be far along in their dementia process. They may not be able to report that anything happened." 

RELATED: Parolee who raped elderly woman at senior living complex gets prison for ‘nightmare’ attack

In short, older victims of rape and sexual assault often fall outside the parameters of what society expects from survivors. Those stereotypes and expectations harm every victim of sexual assault, and further alienates older survivors, who are less likely to think anyone will believe what happened to them.

“I think there's a social cognitive disconnect in our society and understanding that elders can’t be victims of sexual or family violence. Most of us can’t process, can’t imagine in our minds, that it's possible for someone to sexually assault an elderly person,” Reinhardt said.

That disconnect is exacerbated at the academic level as well, where researchers are either disinclined to, or not given funding to, pursue studies centered on the assault of older people. If advocates or organizations want to study the specifics of what elderly victims of sexual assault need from them, there’s not a large body of research like there is with younger victims.

“There’s not typically a lot of social science research done on the elderly in this field. It’s getting better now, but the elderly are not seen as sexy subjects. And what I mean by this is - I think that from the research community, the elderly are not considered exciting. It's not considered an exciting field,” she said.

The lack of research leads to a broader disconnect between organizations designed to serve sexual assault victims, and organizations who serve elderly people. Shalom Sanctuary Center for Elder Abuse, part of the Hooverwood Living organization, is a place where seniors who cannot remain in their homes due to elder abuse – not always necessarily sexual, sometimes financial, or physical – can find refuge.

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Organizations set up to treat any type of trauma are not geared toward someone over the age of 60.

Director Han Meadway said his organization, and many other ones who service older populations, often have to fill gaps in understanding at the structural level, because few understand the elderly's needs or cater to them. 

“I think another big piece is finding providers who are thinking about these issues as they affect older adults specifically,” Meadway said. 

A lot of times, those organizations set up to treat any type of trauma are not geared toward someone over the age of 60. 

Meadway said ultimately, it is organizations who center on elder care who must find ways to offer support for victims of sexual assault, especially in cases of elder abuse, even while the exact folks they serve may not see themselves as part of that demographic.

“They don't see themselves as needing the services of older adult providers, but potentially other service providers are not yet necessarily thinking about the needs of somebody over a certain age,” Meadway said.

Advocates reiterate that, even though resources for older victims of sexual assault are scarce, they still exist. In Indianapolis, there are a variety of resources for older victims of sexual systems, which can provide immediate support for victims. Center for Hope stations are located at five different Indiana hospitals, and have implemented a framework for engaging with victims of sexual assault regardless of age.

"For older people who have been abused or sexually assaulted, calling 911 or calling the state elder abuse hotline is a good place to start," she said. "You are believed." 

When speaking out to those organizations is hard to do, and resources for survivors are not what they should be, what struck advocates when they examined the Goodlow case was how a group of survivors were able to relay what happened to authorities in a way that brought charges.

I think the fact that they were able to come forward and speak about their experience is incredibly courageous. Because of what they did, this man is not currently harming other women, just like them. So, you know, by having that bravery, they saved others. I can't imagine the amount of courage that they were able to muster to speak with police. I think that's outstanding. It's amazing,” Reichert said.

RELATED: Indianapolis serial rape suspect faces judge, bond set at $500k

But the responsibility of looking out for the elderly in our community cannot just fall on any one organization’s, or police department, or any individuals' shoulders, she said. It is necessary for all of us to take up for our elderly neighbors when we can, preemptively being there for support should a situation arise. 

"I do think that we need to avoid paternalism and treating the elderly as if they're not empowered and in charge of their lives. So there is a fine line between respecting individuals and respecting their autonomy. It's really incumbent upon all of us community members, everyone who lives in this community to look out for each other, to be a good neighbor,” Reichert said. “I think everybody has a role to play. Everyone should serve as their brother or sister's keeper. You have a responsibility to do that.”

Police believe Goodlow could potentially be linked to at least a half dozen rape cases involving eight victims beginning Aug. 1, 2020 through Sept. 8, 2021. He faces 57 charges, including rape, burglary, kidnapping, strangulation and killing domestic animal, a dog.

A judge ordered Goodlow to be held on $500,000 bond and had an initial trial date set for January.


Center of Hope

Phone: 317-355-4673 (HOPE)
Email: centerofhope@eCommunity.com  

CARE - Center for At-Risk Elders

Phone: (317) 955-2790 

Adult Protective Services (State Elder Abuse Hotline: 

Phone: 800-992-6978

Website: https://www.in.gov/fssa/da/adult-protective-services/

NOTE: Indiana is a mandatory report state, meaning everyone is required by law to report cases of suspected neglect, battery or exploitation of an endangered adult to an APS unit or law enforcement. All reports are secured and kept confidential.

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