Exclusive: new figures suggest widespread abuse of adults with learning disabilities

Thousands of adults with learning disabilities in England may have been sexually abused in the past two years, figures obtained by Nursing Standard suggest.

Thousands of adults with learning disabilities in England may have been sexually abused in the past two years, figures obtained by Nursing Standard suggest

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Leading learning disability nurses and charities have criticised the lack of support available to vulnerable adults living with learning disabilities and warned that the true figure could be higher.

Information was requested from 152 councils in England with adult social services responsibilities. Data from 108 councils revealed there had been 3,420 reports of sexual abuse against adults with learning disabilities since April 2015. 

In addition, there were 2,760 reports of sexual abuse against adults with physical disabilities, some of whom may also have learning disabilities.

'Think the unthinkable'

University of Huddersfield senior nurse lecturer and field leader in learning disability nursing Stacey Atkinson said that as a practitioner it was necessary to ‘think the unthinkable’ and be vigilant.

Ms Atkinson, who was made an MBE for services to children with learning disabilities in 2003, said: ‘I wonder about the support that people receive from services and whether there is less support now than in previous years. These figures could be the tip of the iceberg.’

She added that people with complex needs might not be able to communicate about abuse that was happening to them.

Under the Care Act 2014, local authorities have a legal duty to protect and safeguard vulnerable adults from harm. Most councils publish contact information for anyone worried about someone to get in touch and share concerns.

Increased awareness

Noelle Blackman, chief executive of Respond, a charity that supports people with learning disabilities affected by abuse, said awareness of the issue had increased in recent years. 

‘There is more vulnerability for people with learning disabilities, especially as support goes down and they are more easily targeted,’ she said. 

Dr Blackman added that some people with learning disabilities were living without support. 'They are often left high and dry, living alone, and spend time trying to find a way into the community,’ she said. ‘These people are lonely and vulnerable. They want to belong and they get befriended easily by bad people.’

A Department of Health spokesperson said the government had introduced tougher inspections of care services: ‘The abuse of people who depend on these services is unacceptable and we are determined to stamp it out. We will continue to challenge local authorities that do not fulfil their duties under the Care Act.’

Difficult task

Association of Directors of Adult Social Services president-elect Margaret Willcox said adult social care duties under the act included protecting people from abuse.

She said practitioners should seek to understand what the adult at risk wants and balance protection with the right to be independent. This sometimes means recognising a person’s right to make unwise decisions, she added. ‘This can be a difficult task.’

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