In the shadow of abuse

Practice Panel: Learning difficulties team, Bath
and North East Somerset


The names of the service user  and her family have been

SITUATION: Michelle Adams is 27 years old
and has learning difficulties. She is strapped into an electric
wheelchair (once released her arms flail uncontrollably) but can
use her fingers to move the chair. She has speech but it can be
very difficult to understand. She lives with her parents who devote
most of their private time to the church. Michelle’s mother, in
particular, feels that Michelle was a punishment from God in
response to which she is dedicating her life to the church to seek
PROBLEM: Michelle has become involved with an
advocate based at a day service she has attended for the past year.
She has also joined a self-advocacy group. She has started to learn
about independence and choice. While discussing sex and sexuality,
Michelle became upset. Pictures demonstrating sexual acts caused
her to be very aggressive, particularly one depicting oral sex.
Working with Michelle sensitively, an advocate, the day service
manager and member of the self-advocacy group concluded that
Michelle was disclosing that she had been sexually assaulted by a
senior member of her parents’ church. The parents were shocked that
Michelle had been attending sex and sexuality “classes” and were
outraged at the unsubstantiated allegations about a respected and
much loved man whom they counted as a dear friend, and who had died
the year before and could not defend his name. The parents now
refuse to let Michelle attend the day service.

Panel Responses
Hannah Fordham
Although Michelle does not appear to be in immediate
danger of abuse we need to ensure that the vulnerable adult
protocol was followed. Further investigation is likely to be needed
and may involve the police and other agencies. The disclosure may
have implications for other church members.

Social services has a duty of care for Michelle and can assess her
needs. A planning meeting would be useful in which Michelle’s
wishes and feelings need to be central and a person-centred
approach could be taken. This will establish if Michelle would like
to return to the day services, pursue alternative accommodation and
question how she wants to spend her time.

As the White Paper Valuing People highlights, people with learning
difficulties have the right to fulfilling and varied lives within
the community. Any involvement with Michelle would also need to
take account of her individual communication needs. Michelle
appears to have developed a good working relationship with her
advocate and this should continue. Advocacy enables people to put
forward their views and play an active part in planning their
future services.

Michelle could receive a variety of support including psychology,
psychiatry, support groups or victim support in connection with the
abuse. Consideration should also be given to the impact that
Michelle’s mother’s views of disability are having on Michelle. We
would take particular care to avoid a stigmatising approach to this
situation. Michelle’s family would be offered carer’s assessments.
It is essential that we re-establish contact and trust with
Michelle’s family and direct them to carer organisations for
support. They may find the ending of day care provision and their
increased caring responsibilities difficult to manage.

The reaction of Michelle’s family indicates that lessons can be
learned to ensure that greater sensitivity is taken at the day
service. While confidentiality needs to be respected, day care
services could be more open with family and carers by sharing
activity programmes and seeking feedback. Finally, staff at the day
services should be aware of the impact of using material showing
sexual acts and need to consider how information used might be
acted upon.

Sheena Jones
From a community learning difficulties team
perspective, the physical and psychological health, safety and
general well-being of Michelle is of paramount importance.

The first necessary step must be to initiate a vulnerable adults
meeting because of the nature of the disclosure made by Michelle.
Any contact before this happens may lead to contamination of
evidence in what might result in legal proceedings. In informing
Michelle’s parents of her disclosure the day centre staff have
probably acted incorrectly and not in accordance with a vulnerable
adult policy and guidelines. It is also questionable whether the
centre was following any sexual health guidelines when introducing
pictures of oral sex into a group which is described as a
self-advocacy group.

It is vital that Michelle has the best opportunity to communicate
her thoughts and feelings, and an independent advocate along with
communication support and advice is crucial. This may involve a
speech and language therapist from a community learning
difficulties team who would be able to offer assessment and ongoing

At a suitable time there may be involvement from other team members
(psychologist, psychiatrist, occupational therapist,
physiotherapist or social worker) to offer Michelle support for her
physical, psychological and social needs. This support would need
to be dovetailed into any vulnerable adult and legal

Any team input would need to be co-ordinated and approached with
great sensitivity. It will be essential to maintain contact with
all those involved in Michelle’s support and, if appropriate, to
work with Michelle’s parents to try and build confidence and
communication. It might also be appropriate to involve outside
agencies specialising in working with people with learning
difficulties who have been abused, such as Respond
( or Voice UK (

In the long term it might be a good idea to offer Michelle and her
parents family therapy to help them address emotional conflicts.
Issues that need to be raised at managerial level include the
implementation of the local vulnerable adults policy, and
guidelines for work around sexual health.

User View
This must be very difficult for Michelle. We think
that Michelle’s parents were wrong to stop her attending the day
service. Michelle is 27 years old and is not a child anymore and
has the right to attend the services that she wants to, write Keith
Taylor and Colin Waters.

Michelle’s parents are denying her access to information and
options to help her make choices about her life by withdrawing her
from the day care service. Michelle has a right to know about sex
and sexuality issues and Michelle also has the right to attend the
self-advocacy group if that is her wish. 

Michelle must have felt comfortable and safe at the day service to
be able to tell people about what happened to her. It must also
have been frightening for Michelle to go through what she has been
through, not least because she is “strapped” into her chair and has
difficulty with her speech and didn’t have anyone to tell.

It must be really hard for Michelle because her parents are almost
telling her that she is wrong about what happened. This must be
causing problems for Michelle and her relationship with her

She must be feeling extremely upset that her parents do not want to
know about what happened or, worse, don’t believe her. And now that
she has been taken out of the day service she might feel that she
has nobody to talk to about it.  

We think Michelle needs somebody else to talk to about what
happened so that she can discuss how she feels. Michelle is a
vulnerable person and her parents cannot ignore this and should
involve the police and social services. She needs a lot of support
to help her through this issue. 

We would also like to know if the day care service has contacted
anybody else other than Michelle’s parents about what happened to
their daughter? Just because the person who is alleged to have
abused her is dead does not mean that the incident did not

Another question that we would ask is that if this happened to
Michelle, has it happened to anyone else? If it has also happened
at the church and by a “respected” church member, the church has a
duty to investigate how the abuse of Michelle was allowed to
happen. If they do not do this they are saying that it is ok for
other people to abuse people with learning difficulties. 

Keith Taylor and Colin Waters are members of Milton Keynes
People First, a self-advocacy group for people with learning

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