Poor advice exposes children to risk of sexual abuse

Children with learning disabilities are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation than other children because they are given sub-standard advice from poorly trained professionals

Children with learning disabilities are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation than other children because they are given sub-standard advice from poorly trained professionals.

A troubling report by a coalition including Barnardo’s, the British Institute of Learning Disabilities (BILD) and The Children’s’ Society reveals that inadequate relationship counselling, social isolation and the tendency to treat vulnerable teenagers as if they were from a younger age group heighten the risk of sexual exploitation.

Perpetrators recognise these failings, and exploit them by deliberately targeting the most vulnerable young people.


The report, Unprotected, Overprotected, calls on the government to improve the teaching of young people about the risks they face, and reinforce the message that it is their right to refuse consent. It also asserts that existing national and local policies for protecting vulnerable children are not being implemented.

RCN professional lead on learning disability nursing Ann Norman describes the report’s findings as ‘appalling’, adding: ‘It is very worrying, and sadly it doesn’t surprise me. It is the most vulnerable people who get the worst service.’

The investigation, funded by Comic Relief, pooled the resources of Barnardo’s, The Children’s Society, BILD, Paradigm Research and Coventry University to interview 27 young people, 71 UK local authorities and 34 front line and strategic-level professionals.

One nursing lecturer who has campaigned for better sex education for children with learning disabilities, Stacey Atkinson, says it is something every school should provide.

Schools failing pupils

Ms Atkinson, the 2002 Nursing Standard Nurse of the Year, who was made an MBE for projects helping children come to terms with their emerging sexuality, says schools are still failing pupils, more than a decade after the issue was given a thorough airing.

Now a senior nurse lecturer in learning disability nursing at the University of Huddersfield and a member of Learning Disability Practice’s editorial board, Ms Atkinson says: ‘At the time, that work was adopted by all the schools in Leeds, but my students are telling me that work still isn’t going on within schools.

‘A lot of school nurses aren’t learning disability nurses, and sometimes you have staff who want to tackle the issue but management haven’t got the sexual education policies in place to allow that. There’s still a lot of fear out there among professionals who are, for whatever reason, worried about getting it wrong.’


Part of the problem, she believes, is concern among some professionals that merely raising the subject with young people risks putting them in harm’s way.

Tom, aged 15, was sexually exploited by an older male who groomed him via Facebook. The older male told Tom he loved him and wanted to be his boyfriend. He also told him he was 18 when he was actually 37. Tom explained that, because of his autism, he found it hard to understand why someone would lie to him.

‘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 his boyfriend had ordered him not to tell anyone. ‘He said it was a secret. He said 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.’

‘This is a delicate area and there’s a fear of opening Pandora’s box, with people thinking that if they do some work around sexuality they might then be blamed if a child became overtly sexual,’ says Ms Atkinson. ‘But children really need this information in order to have an element of self-protection and insight.’

The report accuses professionals of ‘infantilising’ teenagers with learning disabilities, denying them age-appropriate advice that could reduce the risk of being groomed by predators. It calls for improved training, a more co-ordinated approach, better support for parents, and greater awareness of the issue in the community.

School nurses' role

Fiona Smith, RCN children’s and young people’s nursing adviser, agrees that school nurses – working with teachers – have a pivotal role. ‘School nurses can work with children and young people to raise awareness about what is, and isn’t, appropriate behaviour in terms of protecting themselves.

‘School nurses already hold drop-in clinics in many schools and, within schools, teachers and nurses work together to educate children and young people about maintaining personal safety. In terms of sexual exploitation of vulnerable young people, there is increasing across-the-board awareness of the issue.’

She says that the influence of social media and internet communication have increased risks, but that efforts are being made to address this. ‘In some parts of the country they’re building online safety messages into, for example, junior citizenship classes,’ Ms Smith says.

Deeply troubling

The research partners behind the report were united in their assessment of its findings. BILD chief executive Ann Chivers describes the report as ‘shocking’, adding: ‘It is deeply troubling that young people with learning disabilities, some of our most vulnerable young people, are being sexually exploited every day.

‘We want to see a balance between child protection and children’s rights. In denying young people with learning disabilities their sexuality and their need for healthy relationship education, we have inadvertently increased their vulnerability.

When Sian was 14, teachers noticed she was being met from school by a man who was not known to be a relative, and they contacted her social worker.

The man had told Sian to keep their relationship secret. It transpired that he had given her a false name, that the flat he took her to was not his, and that he lived with his wife and children. Sian, now 20, was clear about why she had kept it secret.

‘He told me not to tell because they would stop us being together. Because of my autism, I often take things literally, so if someone says to me to do something or not to do something, I will do it in the way they tell me. I didn’t really get on with my social worker. She was all right and everything, but I didn’t know or trust her. She wasn’t the kind of person you talk to about sex and boyfriends.’

Specialist help

Sian was referred to a specialist child sexual exploitation project by her social worker. It took more than six months before she would engage on a regular basis. ‘But I still didn’t tell her what I was up to because it didn’t seem any of her business. I didn’t want any help and didn’t think I was being sexually exploited.’

Sian’s perception began to shift when her ‘boyfriend’ made her have sex with other men. ‘I still didn’t see that I was being sexually exploited. He said I have to have sex with these other men because, otherwise, he would be in trouble.’

‘They need support to be happy, healthy and safe. Such support exists, but isn’t joined up, doesn’t share good practice and often relies on uncertain budgets.’

Lack of awareness

Javed Khan, chief executive of Barnardo’s, says: ‘No one wants to believe a child with learning disabilities could ever be exploited in this way. But it is happening all over the UK. A lack of awareness of the needs of these vulnerable children is playing into the hands of perpetrators of sexual exploitation.’

The children’s Society chief executive Matthew Reed says that improving sex education is vital. ‘Children with learning disabilities need to be given the knowledge that will help them protect themselves, to understand when they are under threat and what a good relationship is.’

The report’s findings are complicated by the fact that under a third of the councils that participated separated out statistics for young people with learning disabilities, making the problem harder to gauge.

Coventry University reader in children and families research Anita Franklin is critical of the apparent lack of support for vulnerable children who experience sexual exploitation.


‘It is hoped that this research leads to improvements in how we help young people with learning disabilities to understand the risk of exploitation, and improvements to services that can adequately protect and support this group,’ she says.

Ms Norman says the report has put the issue under the microscope. ‘I’m really pleased that these agencies have come together to produce this report; it really puts the spotlight on what is important.

I now need to go back to the RCN. I said publicly that I’d carefully digest this report and make sure we act on it.

Information sharing

‘There’s a resonance with information sharing between agencies, including the police. We work with the police a lot more, and information sharing has to happen. There is also a potential for these young people to end up in prison, where they can be exploited even more.

‘I would also highlight the valuable role that school nurses have to play, while mainstream nursing needs to have its radar tuned to the potential for exploitation.

‘We have to ask what more we can do. Even small steps are important.’

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