Advice on working with a woman with learning disabilities who offends

Social workers and a service user offer advice on a case involving a mother with learning disabilities who is descending into a life of crime


Situation: Rebecca, (not her real name) 21, has learning disabilities. She has a four-year-old son who has delayed development. Until last year they lived with Rebecca’s mother, brothers, sister and stepfather. Independently, she found her own tenancy on a two-bedroom flat through a housing association to share with her son. She did not want to engage with any external help other than her family and occasionally staff in her local authority’s community learning difficulty team. Rebecca has a history of impulsive and offending behaviours (stealing, criminal damage). There are long-standing historical problems between the police and Rebecca’s family.

Problem: She had many altercations with neighbours and the police were often called. At one point she was arrested after she assaulted several police officers (including attacking one with a metal bar). She was remanded to prison on bail, then placed under section two then three of the Mental Health Act 1983. A community support package was put in place, but this broke down within days. She re-offended and was placed on remand and another community support package put in place. Within two weeks she reoffended and was again put on remand. Rebecca’s behaviour has worsened and become increasingly risky each time she has been on remand. She has learned behaviour from other inmates, to the point of setting fire to herself and the cell resulting in her having to be resuscitated.

Essential information on learning disabilities

The Service User View

Amy Forgacs, project worker at Speaking Up,a charity that empowers people with learning disabilities to speak for themselves

This is a difficult situation, it must be sad for Rebecca to be in so much trouble especially as her son may be taken away from her.

The members of the community learning difficulty team that Rebecca has seen in the past must try to work with her to find out why she is doing these things. This could possibly involve a councillor or psychotherapist if she was willing to engage.

The support workers should try to find out what Rebecca’s interests are so she can focus on these or maybe try and think about an activity she could do.

Rebecca should not be on remand as it seems to be making her worse. If she was with other people who were not committing crimes she could learn behaviour that was not so damaging. This could be important as her family may have influenced her in the past. This could be a specialist secure unit but not a prison.

I hope Rebecca would be able to develop in a way that involved her not breaking the law. It seems that she needs more support probably from the community learning difficulty team as she does not want any other form of help. I would like to think she could eventually feel good enough about herself so that she could get on with her life in a fulfilled way.

Social workers’ views

Julia Hague, case worker at Voice UK, a charity which supports people with learning disabilities who have experienced crime or abuse

This case raises several questions about provisions of care, Rebecca’s mental state, and treatment plans.

My first concern is whether or not Rebecca had received any intervention from social services, or departments other than the community learning difficulty team. With Rebecca’s history of offending and its escalation, support to help manage her behaviour could have reduced neighbourhood altercations, assaults, and may have prevented her being imprisoned.

Provisions of care for Rebecca’s son are a great concern. Her behaviour, and subsequent sectioning and imprisonment, will impact on the child, especially as he has developmental delays. Questions arise as to whether there were any care plans for the child, before Rebecca’s imprisonment and section; and will there be support for the child’s well-being and monitoring of the home environment?

Rebecca has had difficulty with previous community support packages (CSP), therefore different methods of support and treatment, alongside a CSP, should be considered. Moving home should be considered because Rebecca has had many altercations with her neighbours.

Rebecca may have learned behaviour that has increased in severity after being placed on remand. She has copied potentially fatal acts from fellow inmates. Further imprisonment may not be the best option for her.

Rhys Bradley, social worker, Community Support Team (LD), Vale of Glamorgan Council

Rebecca’s impulsive and offending behaviour appears to have escalated significantly since leaving the family home. It may be that Rebecca has now become socially isolated and is struggling to cope with the demands of raising a young child as a single parent – an endeavour that is likely to be exacerbated by Rebecca’s learning disability and her child’s own developmental delays.

The fact that she is reluctant to engage with other agencies could be stopping her from obtaining the help and support networks she needs. But this has been Rebecca’s choice and the fact that she secured her own tenancy would suggest that she has capacity. In is unclear what type of external help has been offered but Rebecca may benefit from a referral to an organisation such as Flying Start, which provides a variety of support services to families with pre-school children.

One concern is the impact that Rebecca’s behaviour is having on her child. It is unclear who is caring for him during these episodes and whether or not Rebecca’s family are able and willing to help. Involvement from children’s services would likely be essential in order to ensure that the welfare of the child is safeguarded. While it is unclear whether the child is at risk of significant harm, it would certainly appear that he is ‘in need’ of services.

Published in the 14 May edition of Community Care in the Practice Panel slot under the heading ‘A mother in danger of a life inside’

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