[shoulder] rides, at his request, and carry him around the residence.”
One day, DeProspero wrote, the boy was upset and alone in his room. “My memory of child porn videos sprang back into my mind,” he says, and he forced the boy to perform a sex act.
For weeks afterward, DeProspero says, he was “beside myself with guilt and grief.”
He says he looked for another job. He got one, at a group home for adults with intellectual disabilities. But first he went back to sexually assault the boy one more time, and this time filmed it as “a momento [sic] to remember him.”
That act, too, went unnoticed. Five years later it was discovered, by accident.
Police investigating Internet child porn seized DeProspero’s computer and cameras — and found images of children. He was given a six-month sentence.
Afterward, his lawyer asked police to return DeProspero’s computer and cameras. They agreed but first did one last check of the equipment. That’s when they discovered more pictures, including the film clip of DeProspero, from years before, assaulting the 10-year-old boy.
“I let this child down in the worst way imaginable,” DeProspero said the day he was sentenced.
The state of New York paid the boy’s family $3 million in damages.
“People who perpetrate these crimes are always looking for justification for what they do. It’s never their fault. It’s always someone else’s fault. … They’re very manipulative people,” says Dawn Lupi, the Oneida County prosecutor in the case.
One of the most memorable moments in the case, Lupi said, was when she met with the other staffers in the large group home where the boy was raped by DeProspero. “They were very caring,” she says. “They were devastated that they didn’t stop it.”
Barriers to prosecution
It’s rare for these cases to go to court. Some people with intellectual disabilities do have trouble speaking or describing things in detail, or in proper time sequence. Our investigation found that makes it harder for police to investigate and for prosecutors to win these cases in court.
Even when these cases do go to court, there are barriers. In 2012, a jury in Georgia found a man guilty of raping a 24-year-old woman with Down syndrome three times over one night and the following morning. Appeals Court Judge Christopher McFadden, two years later, overturned the decision, saying the woman did not “behave like a victim.” McFadden, who presided over the original trial, questioned why the woman waited a day to report the rape and said that she did not exhibit “visible distress.” The jury had heard evidence that the man’s semen was found in the victim’s bed and that a doctor who examined the woman found evidence consistent with a sexual assault.
The man was retried in 2015, and a new jury convicted him. The woman’s mother said afterward it had been traumatic for her daughter to go back to court and tell her story again.
In another case, a psychologist hired by the Los Angeles Unified School District said in court in 2013 that a young girl with an intellectual disability probably was less traumatized, because of her disability. The trial was for damages for a 9-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted five times by an older boy at her school. Stan Katz, the psychologist, testified it was “very possible” that the girl had a “protective factor” against emotional trauma because of her low IQ.
The jury didn’t buy it and awarded the girl $1.4 million in damages, far more than the girl’s family was even seeking.
“It’s not your fault”
When Pauline — the woman who wants her story told — was raped on Feb. 20, 2016, she was living with her longtime caretaker, a social worker named Cheryl McClain, and that woman’s extended family. Pauline had lived half her life with McClain and called her “Mommy.”
The family lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., but had bought that second home in the Pocono Mountains, in Pennsylvania.
That’s where the rape happened.
Pauline was assaulted by two boys, just 12 and 13. These details come from the police criminal complaint. One boy, McClain explains, was her foster child. The other, she says, was her adopted son.
According to the police complaint, the two boys confessed right away to the police that they had raped Pauline and that she had told them to stop. Both boys, according to the complaint, “confessed to raping the victim and both related that the victim repeatedly told both juveniles to stop assaulting her.”
It was McClain who called the police that night. But after police charged the boys with rape, McClain seemed to have second thoughts.
She pressured Pauline to change her story.
One way we know: Cheryl McClain recorded herself coaching Pauline. Telling the woman with an intellectual disability that maybe it wasn’t really rape, that she’d enjoyed the sex.
“You wanted to do it,” McClain tells Pauline on the recording.
NPR obtained parts of the transcript from the recording, which was attached to the police complaint.
McClain goes from expressing anger at the boys who assaulted her to telling Pauline that she was at fault, too.
“Even though I know they started with you first,” McClain told Pauline, “a lady has to say ‘No.’ She has to mean ‘No.’ ”
McClain told NPR that she had warned the boys to be respectful of the woman with an intellectual disability. “They knew not to touch her, that I love her so much, that to touch her would be trouble,” McClain says. “I would throw them out of the house.”
But on the recording, it’s Pauline who, McClain threatens, will have to leave the house. If Pauline’s charge against the boys stands, McClain tells her, “the only way to fix this, the only way it could work out, you just would have to not be with me. … You wouldn’t be able to live with me if I had any boys here.”
McClain says if she had known the boys were abusing Pauline, she would have stopped them. But Pauline says she did tell McClain about previous assaults. Just the week before that assault in Pennsylvania, Pauline had told McClain that there had been earlier assaults, according to the police complaint. She said both boys had abused her, in the house in New York and the house in Pennsylvania. The police complaint shows that McClain said she called the police in New York. As a result, the 13-year-old was detained at a New York juvenile facility for four days, and then released back to the family.
That was just days before the sexual assault in Pennsylvania. This time, both boys were removed to a juvenile detention center, this one in Easton, Pa.
McClain and Pauline had lived together for more than 20 years and were like mother and daughter. Pauline said McClain was often nice to her, but sometimes mean. She’d sometimes yell at her. “Used to call me names. Call me ‘stupid.’ ‘Retarded,’ ” Pauline says.
McClain denies that she ever mistreated Pauline or used those words.
But Pauline says that in the days after the sexual assault in Pennsylvania, there was a lot of tension.
“Because of the boys and stuff,” Pauline recalls. “She said, ‘It’s your fault, Pauline.’ ”
Pauline pauses, and then reassures herself: “It’s not your fault.”
On Feb. 22, two days after the assault, McClain called Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Shamus Kelleher, who had investigated the rape. She told the officer that Pauline had changed her story and now said the sex acts had been consensual and that Pauline said she “enjoyed it.”
But when Kelleher asked to talk to Pauline, McClain refused to let Pauline speak. In his complaint, Kelleher noted that McClain’s claim that Pauline had agreed to sex with the boys had been made “solely” by McClain “and was not in any way verified by the victim even after requested by this Trooper.”
Kelleher already had a sense of Pauline. He had taken her statement two days before, when she was “visibly upset and I observed her to be crying,” he reported, as she talked about the assault. Pauline had told him she never wanted to see the two boys again.
Then, on March 1, the night before the boys were to appear in juvenile court, McClain took Pauline — the rape victim — to the office of the public defender who was representing one of the boys — a rape suspect. McClain told the lawyer that the sex acts were consensual. The attorney, William Watkins, stopped her. If that were true, then Pauline might have been guilty of committing a crime against the two boys.
The next day at the Monroe County Courthouse, news of McClain’s bringing Pauline to the public defender’s office was relayed to the judge. The Monroe County district attorney, police and an Adult Protective Services worker tried to speak to Pauline to see whether she had, in fact, changed her story. But every time someone approached Pauline, either McClain or her husband, Kinard McClain, “would physically restrict any possible communications with the victim,” according to the police criminal complaint against McClain.
Pauline, Kelleher would write in a police criminal complaint, “became visibly upset and agitated during these proceedings and on numerous occasions stated she did not want anyone to go to jail.”
But she did not change her story that she had been raped.
That’s when McClain revealed she had those recordings on her phone.
McClain played one of the recordings. Kelleher wrote in the police complaint that rather than hearing — as McClain claimed — Pauline retracting her story, he heard “a heated discussion regarding the sexual assaults.”
Police ordered McClain to turn over her cellphone with the recordings as potential evidence. But she refused, and hid the Samsung Galaxy phone inside her shirt.
The judge had taken an unusual step. To protect Pauline, he assigned her a lawyer. Usually, a crime victim is represented by the district attorney. But to prosecute crimes against people with intellectual disabilities, courts often need to take extra steps, sometimes creative or rare ones. Now, in addition to the district attorney prosecuting the crime, Pauline had her own lawyer.
Syzane Arifaj, a former public defender for juveniles, had worked with clients with disabilities. When she met Pauline for the first time, the thing that struck her was that Pauline was “consistent.” Her story about how the two boys raped her did not change. That was important, Arifaj says, because “a lot of people who have intellectual disabilities are very malleable. So if you just repeatedly tell them this happened and this didn’t happen, they’re sort of prone to taking the suggestion.”
Pauline was torn, though, facing heavy pressure from McClain, whom she had long relied on.
“Pauline didn’t want to upset anybody,” Arifaj says. “From the start, her thing was, she didn’t want anybody to be mad at her.”
She had learned to survive by pleasing the people she depended upon for help. And when told she was putting people she lived with in danger with the law, Pauline said she didn’t want anyone to go to jail.
The difficulty of prosecution
Arifaj says it’s harder for people with intellectual disabilities to seek justice.
“They don’t act independently so if someone who is taking care of them is not advocating for them, that makes the situation very difficult because they’re not in a position to take care of themselves,” she explains. “Mrs. McClain was taking care of her. That’s all she knew.”
There’s long been reluctance by many prosecutors to take on rape cases against people with intellectual disabilities. That’s largely because a person with an intellectual disability may have difficulty recalling details from a crime, or remembering them consistently. And they often have difficulty remembering time sequence — when something happened or in what order.
That made prosecuting crimes against Pauline difficult. She was unsure of dates of the different times she had been assaulted and which assaults had happened at the family’s house in New York or at the house in Pennsylvania. And it wasn’t just Pauline who found it confusing; prosecutors did too.
It helped prosecutors in Pennsylvania, Arifaj says, that the boys had quickly confessed to police investigators that night.
According to court records, the two boys were charged with rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and other sex crimes.
Separately, McClain became a defendant, too. She was charged with six felonies — including intimidating a witness and interfering with an investigation — and two misdemeanors. Prosecutors would eventually drop the felony charges.
Last June, McClain pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of giving false information to police with the intent to try to implicate someone. She was fined $15,000 and put on probation for two years.
In 2016, the two juveniles were found guilty — “adjudicated delinquent” is the terminology — and sent to a state treatment center, according to attorneys involved in the case and what Pauline’s new guardian in Pennsylvania was told.
McClain still disputes the charges against her. She notes that she was the one who called the police the night Pauline was assaulted. And when McClain told authorities a different story — that it wasn’t rape but consensual sex — she thinks police and prosecutors refused to believe her because they thought she was now fearful of losing Pauline’s Social Security disability benefits. Social Security sent Pauline’s check to McClain as her representative, according to the police complaint.
“If I was afraid I would lose the check, I never had to pick up that phone and not tell anyone,” McClain says.
She says she pleaded guilty because she feared prosecutors. “I felt those people were coming to destroy my life.”
McClain says that she loves Pauline and wants her to come back to the home in Brooklyn.
A new life
When Pauline was raped in Pennsylvania, her life turned upside down. Suddenly, she lost the life she had worked hard to establish in Brooklyn.
McClain, for more than 20 years, had helped Pauline make her way in the world. In Pennsylvania, Pauline would have to make a new life for herself.
Most days, it starts at a busy day program run by the Arc Northeastern Pennsylvania. At this center in a city in the northeastern part of the state, people with intellectual disabilities, like Pauline, spend the day, get meals, socialize and do some work for minimal pay.
One day last April started with an exercise video. Nine adults lined up in a row, faced the screen and moved their arms and bodies to the music. A woman in a wheelchair scooted back and forth.
Pauline smiles during the cha-cha step. She’s a smooth dancer.
“I like any kind of music,” Pauline says. “I like Michael Jackson. Stevie Wonder. Diana Ross. I like any kind of music. They play music. I’ll dance to it. I like to dance.”
As it was just a few days before Easter, the big excitement was around an impending visit from the Easter Bunny.
And when the guest of honor — the staffer who fit into the furry costume with straight-up ears and a goofy smile — arrived with a basket of chocolates, the room of adults — in their 30s, 40s, some in their 60s — erupted in delight, with applause and cheers.
Sometimes adults with intellectual disabilities still take joy in childish things. And maybe that’s because they’re often treated as children for so much of their lives.
There’s debate among professionals about moments like this. Many argue that to do things with adults that are normally done with children is condescending and “infantilizing.” Some argue that it stops adults from learning adult skills appropriate for their age.
Pat Quinn, who runs adult day and residential services at the Arc Northeastern Pennsylvania, points out the difficulty around this dilemma. His agency makes respect a primary value. But as he watches the excitement of the adults receiving candy from the Easter Bunny, he asks, “How could you deny them this?”
Often people with intellectual disability are described this way: They’re 30 years old or 40 years old, but they have the “developmental age” of a child.
Many professionals in the field say that kind of description can be misleading.
Mainly because, as Quinn notes, adults with intellectual disabilities are not children. They have a lifetime of experience. They want things other adults want: jobs and community; friendships, relationships — and that includes romantic relationships, sex, and maybe marriage.
But it’s difficult because there are limits when it comes to learning, problem solving and everyday social skills.
Often, it’s the law that treats them like children. In 32 states, according to an NPR count of state statutes, the same laws that protect children from physical and sexual abuse are used to protect adults with intellectual disabilities.
And there’s some good reason for that. Like children, adults with intellectual disabilities — who grow up trusting and relying upon other people — may have trouble telling when someone tries to trick them. Like kids generally, they’re just more vulnerable to abuse. Often they need the assistance that they find in a place like a group home.
Pauline lives with three other women in a group home now. It’s a one-level red brick house with white columns in a residential neighborhood.
At first, Pauline says, she was upset coming to this unfamiliar house. But those feelings evolved.
“I got used to it,” she says. “It took me a while.”
Now she thinks it’s better for her to live here — “Because I feel safe. I feel happy. The staff take good care of me. I’m really happy here.”
The staff at this group home — run by the Arc — took Pauline to doctors. She has a new pair of glasses — the coppery orange ones. Pauline and her caregivers said she had gone for years without glasses. McClain disputes that and says Pauline lost glasses she had previously had. Pauline and Roxanne Kiehart, the house supervisor, say the day Pauline got those new glasses, she was stunned by how her vision changed. She ran around the optometrist’s shop, yelling, “I can see. I can see.”
She can see the TV screen now. In New York, she says, she never had time to watch TV. Her day began making the beds in the house. Then she went to a job busing tables at a pizza parlor in Brooklyn. She took two subways, by herself, to work. The money she earned went back to McClain, to the house, to pay for groceries. Most nights, the family went to church.
At the new house in Pennsylvania, it’s still hard to get Pauline to relax and just take time for herself, Kiehart explains. Pauline likes to set the table and help with dinner.
“She always wants to be busy,” Kiehart says. “She always wants to help.”
Part of that, Kiehart explains — and Pauline agrees — is that Pauline stayed busy doing chores at the house in Brooklyn.
Now, Pauline says, she gets to keep money from her Social Security check and from her job. And, for the first time, she goes shopping and picks out her own clothes. McClain says she gave Pauline money and that there’s an entire closet at the house in the Poconos with Pauline’s dresses, ones that she bought herself.
Pauline gives a tour of the house: The kitchen where she likes to help make pasta stuffed with cheese, the backyard with the tall trees, her bedroom with seashells over the bed.
There was one more thing Pauline wanted to show off: the pictures from her wedding.
They are in frames on the dresser in her bedroom. “I have a beautiful wedding dress,” she said. “It’s white. And it’s like a thing you put around your hair” (her veil).
When Pauline was living with McClain, she met David, a man with an intellectual disability, at church.
Pauline says McClain told her if she wanted to be with David, they would have to get married. The wedding was at the church, where McClain is active; Pauline in the white dress, David in a dark tuxedo. They had a white wedding cake with red rose petals.
David moved into the house, sharing a room with Pauline.
She holds out her left hand to show the twisted silver wedding band with a small stone.
Pauline reflects on what it means to her to be married and to have a husband.
“He really loves me so much,” she says. “That’s where you feel special.”
But now, miles apart and in different states, David and Pauline talk on the phone most nights. On the dresser in her bedroom, there are pictures of David and the cards he sends — birthday cards, holiday cards, romantic cards. He signs them with his first and last name.
Pauline misses David’s kisses. She misses him in her bed. But she won’t go back to her old family. That’s where she was raped. And David won’t, on his own, leave that house and move to a new state. He lives with McClain and depends upon her. McClain insists David doesn’t want to move. He has a job he likes and is active in the church.
Like other adults with intellectual disabilities, Pauline wants love, romance and marriage. But like so many other adults with intellectual disabilities, a history of rape gets in the way.