Practice Panel: learning disabilities and possible sexual exploitation

Professionals offer advice on a case involving a young woman with learning disabilities who may be the subject of sexual exploitation by a worker at the care home where she lives

Professionals offer advice on a case involving a young woman with learning disabilities who may be the subject of sexual exploitation by a worker at the care home where she lives



Twenty one-year-old Shannon* has cerebral palsy and moderate learning disabilities. She was placed in a small care home three years ago while her parents were separating. She appears to be settled. She enjoys going to college three mornings a week, loves music and her mother visits her every Sunday.


Recently the care home’s manager, Cynthia*, rang social services to report her suspicions that Dave*, a care assistant, may have had sex with Shannon the previous night.

In the morning Shannon told a worker that she was “dancing with Dave” in her room last night. Shannon said that it was a new secret dance that Dave sometimes does with her when he works nights.

Shannon explained that it hurt a bit at first and last night it gave her “the best feeling ever”. Shannon asked the worker to keep it a secret, adding that she had to tell someone because she was in love.

Cynthia said that, as far as she is aware, Shannon has never had a romantic relationship and she doubts whether she has much, if any, understanding of sex. Dave is an agency worker who has covered occasional shifts for the past six months. Night-shifts are usually single staffed. Dave’s next shift is this evening.

*Names have been changed


Carl O’Riordan, social worker, Derbyshire Council

Shannon’s descriptions are disconcertingly ambiguous. I would firstly ask Cynthia if she can urgently clarify the nature of Shannon’s relationship with Dave.

If they had had sex, Dave should be prosecuted under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 for sleeping with someone in his care, a criminal offence regardless of Shannon’s capacity to consent.

However, if Shannon was describing an innocent game and investigations prove inconclusive, Dave’s livelihood could be unjustly wrecked. There is huge potential for misunderstanding, especially when discussing sex. Leading questions should be avoided.

If Shannon has had sex with Dave, we would jointly investigate with the police. The police would consider both Shannon and her room to be crime scenes; both are likely to hold forensic evidence that needs to be preserved.

We would ask Cynthia to discourage Shannon from washing and ensure that no one enters her room until the police and her social worker arrive to investigate. The police would probably apprehend Dave without warning that day and seek forensic evidence from him. If such evidence proves conclusive, Dave’s prosecution would not depend upon testimony from Shannon.

Dave would of course immediately be suspended and prevented from working with vulnerable adults, and checks would be made on the other residents in the home.

While we would endeavour to preserve evidence for a successful prosecution, our primary concern would be Shannon’s welfare.

Shannon says that she is in love; she is potentially highly vulnerable. Everyone involved should be carefully chosen and must strive to ensure that Shannon is not traumatised by what has already happened to her or by any part of the ensuing investigation.


Bev Capel, service manager, Derbyshire Council

It is important that Cynthia takes urgent action. It is possible there is viable forensic evidence and this needs to be collected at the earliest opportunity by police if a strong case is to be produced for the Crown Prosecution Service.

However, ethical and legal consideration must be given to Shannon’s ability to consent to physical examination.

Shannon’s apparent lack of insight into the nature of the suspected relationship leaves her vulnerable to post-traumatic distress, so the whole issue needs to be handled with extreme skill and sensitivity.

While some information about Shannon’s admission needs to be understood in order to establish a better picture of their relationship, Cynthia should try not to probe Shannon too much because police may consider her evidence corrupted.

If required, this information can be taken by a vulnerable witness interviewer who is specially trained to work with vulnerable people.

The police are also likely to want to know whether Shannon has capacity to consent to sex and indeed to provide a formal statement. Shannon will need suitable tools in order to communicate effectively if she is to be interviewed.

A thorough investigation is required to ensure a firm conclusion is reached. Whether Shannon is able to consent to sex or not, Dave, if proven guilty, has committed a sexual offence with someone he is employed to care for.

The local authority will work alongside police throughout the investigation and although Shannon will be immediately safeguarded by actions to suspend Dave from his duties, we would want to ensure Shannon has access to the appropriate support both during and after the investigation.


Amy Clarke, Mencap

This is a complicated area which is not easy to comment on with lots of questions that cannot be easily answered. They could have just been dancing but unfortunately it does sound as though he is abusing his position. He is meant to be supporting her and he has overstepped the boundaries.

There are questions around Sharon and what she understands. Just because she has not had sex before doesn’t mean that she does not understand it. She does seem naïve and trusting.

An investigation is important but this would invade her privacy. It should be carried out by people she knows, maybe other support workers that she trusts.

They definitely should not go in guns blazing, but it might be important for her to have a medical test to see if she has had sex. Dave should be suspended until after the investigation.

If it was just a dance and it was a friend, that would be OK, but he is her support worker and he has stepped over the line.

It is a sad story because she is 21 and should be able to meet someone romantically, but it is the wrong situation with the wrong type of person.

It would be better if she could meet with someone on an equal footing. It is also a shame that her memories of romance will be sad because of an investigation. It should not stop her from meeting someone else and living her life.

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