Recent research carried out by a coalition of children’s charities suggests that children with learning disabilities can be more vulnerable to sexual exploitation than other children and often face increased barriers when it comes to reporting abuse or getting the support they need.

Greater risk of exploitation and abuse

The report which was commissioned by Comic Relief and carried out by charities including Barnardo’s, the Children’s Society and the British Institute of Learning Disabilities found that significant numbers of children with learning disabilities are not being adequately protected from sexual abuse and exploitation as there is a false perception that they are not at risk of sexual exploitation nor do they require the same education about sex and relationships as other children. The report also found that children with learning disabilities were often not provided with the same education about staying safe online or recognising grooming and other manipulative behaviour in their daily lives.

The authors of the report state; “A lack of awareness of the needs of these vulnerable children is playing into the hands of perpetrators of sexual exploitation… young people with learning disabilities are a perpetrator’s dream.”

The issue is further exasperated by the fact that children with learning disabilities face a number of barriers to reporting abuse and having their voices heard. The report found that children with learning disabilities often did not realise or recognise that they were being sexually exploited. Where children did realise that they had experienced sexual exploitation they then faced additional difficulties in identifying appropriate people to speak to about the abuse and frequently had concerns about the consequences of reporting abuse or that they would not be believed.

Summary of findings

The report found that:

  • Young people with learning disabilities are vulnerable to CSE due to factors that include overprotection, social isolation and society refusing to view them as sexual beings.
  • Lack of awareness of the sexual exploitation of young people with learning disabilities among professionals also contributes to their vulnerability.
  • There are gaps in national policy and a lack of implementation of current guidance.
  • Young people with learning disabilities are often not specifically considered in local multi-agency arrangements for CSE, which has implications for whether those experiencing or at risk of CSE are identified or receive support.

Barriers to protection

Additionally and alternatively, the report found that society in general is reluctant to consider that vulnerable and disabled children are at risk of abuse and often overlook telltale signs of abuse. Many victims of abuse display challenging behaviour after being abused but in children with learning difficulties it is often assumed that this is related to the child’s impairment or behavioural issues rather than an indication of abuse.

The authors of the report noted that: “Disabled children often make clear disclosures of abuse – often multiple disclosures – without being heard.”

Whilst the number of children with learning difficulties who have experienced abuse is unclear, the report draws on prevalence studies from around the world which suggest that those with learning difficulties are three to four times more likely to be abused.

It is easy to see how the present state of affairs has led to children with learning disabilities facing greater risks. A lack of adequate education and information means that children with learning disabilities are often easy targets for perpetrators of sexual exploitation. Children that have been abused then face greater obstacles in reporting the abuse.

Case Studies

The report draws on a number of case studies which highlight the difficulties that children with learning difficulties can face:

  • Tom, aged 15, was sexually exploited by an older male who groomed him via Facebook. The older male told Tom that he loved him and wanted to be his boyfriend. He also told him that he was 18, when he was actually 37.
  • Tom explained that, because of his autism, he found it particularly challenging to understand why someone would lie to him and say something they did not mean:
  • ‘He said he loved me and wanted to be my boyfriend. Why would he say those things if he didn’t mean them? I wanted a boyfriend so why would I not have someone as my boyfriend who said he wanted to be my boyfriend?’
  • Tom said he did not tell his social worker, or any other professionals, that he was having a sexual relationship with an older male because no one asked him. When asked whether he would have told his social worker if she had asked him, Tom said he did not know because his older boyfriend had told him that he must not tell anyone about their relationship as Tom would get in trouble:
  • He said it was a secret… He said that lots of people thought that people with autism shouldn’t have boyfriends or girlfriends and that they would be angry with me if they knew I had a boyfriend.’

Conclusion

My experience acting on behalf of victims of sexual exploitation and abuse reinforces the idea that vulnerable and disabled children are often targeted by perpetrators of sexual exploitation and abuse. In recent months I have helped a number of people who were physically and sexually abused by teachers and staff at specialist schools for children with learning disabilities and behavioural issues to bring claims for compensation. In almost all of these cases the victims did not fully realise that they were being exploited at the time.

Over the past year a large number of cases have received media attention in which children were sexually and physically abused in schools and homes for children with behavioural difficulties. These include various cases at St Gilbert’s Approved School near Kidderminster where children were abused by members of the Christian Brothers during the 1960s.