The Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland said today that a woman with learning disabilities was denied justice after being allegedly sexually abused due to failings by social workers, health and criminal justice staff.
In a report, the commission said that agencies had failed to protect the 67-year-old woman, known as Ms A, from a small group of men who had allegedly assaulted her over several years. She was subjected to assaults that could have been avoided but it was only recently that risk factors – including the alleged assailants – were managed. It added that the case was most probably not unique.
None of the men had been prosecuted. Instead, the commission, who started investigating the case in September 2006, said Ms A has been subject to highly restrictive, and possibly unlawful, care arrangements that would not have been necessary had prosecutions been made.
The report said: “Those who pose a known risk to her safety remain at large within her community, while Ms A continues to endure a protective regime that effectively deprives her of much of her liberty.”
Professionals advised she would not be able to act as a reliable witness, yet the assessment of her competence was not carried out by practitioners who knew her best, and there was no “clear evidence” professionals had considered how support might have helped her act as a witness.
It also found no evidence there had been a formal multi-agency discussion of Ms A’s capacity to consent to sex, which represented a “fundamental flaw in the health and social work team’s management of this case”.
Poor information sharing and recording
The Commission also found the recording of information in health and social work files was “often poor”, while failures to share information contributed to the risks to Ms A.
It said there was a lack of clear leadership in the multi-disciplinary team working with Ms A, while some professionals’ roles were constrained. For instance, the mental health officer was limited to processing guardianship orders and providing legal advice, rather than using their specialist social work skills to assess and plan the care of Ms A.
The commission called on the social work department at the council concerned to draw up an action plan in response to the report and assess, with the local NHS Board, Ms A’s capacity and current care arrangements “as a matter of urgency”. It also said it should organise multi-agency training on consent to sexual activity.
It called on the Scottish government to consider the case for further guidance or legislation to ensure equal access to justice for people with learning disabilities, and issue practice guidance on assessing vulnerable adults’ capacity to be reliable witnesses.
The chair of the investigation, George Kappler, said Scotland had the legislation and policy frameworks in place to make a “real difference to vulnerable witnesses”. These include the Vulnerable Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2004, allowing for vulnerable people to apply for special measures when giving evidence, such as a live television link or the presence of a supporter in court.
But he added: “These were clearly not sufficient for Ms A and we need to make sure we learn from this case.”