Knowledge gaps leave learning disabled children unprotected from sexual exploitation

Research published today shows how a lack of the right information can prevent social workers from protecting children with learning disabilities from sexual exploitation

Photo: Rex Features (posed by model)

Low understanding of what impact learning disabilities have on the lives of children prevents social workers from adequately protecting them from child sexual exploitation (CSE).

That was the message from‘Unprotected, overprotected’, research published today about how agencies can meet the needs of young people with learning disabilities who have experienced, or are at risk of experiencing, sexual exploitation.


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The report, commissioned by Comic Relief, highlighted that some young people with learning disabilities had become invisible in services, and that professionals working with CSE often lacked the right information to protect them. This included not recognising that they had a learning disability.

“There appears to be a clear pattern across the UK of CSE professionals working with young people for whom there is no formal or informal identification of a learning disability or specific learning need,” the research said.

Likewise, staff in specialist disability services “are not always adequately trained to identify and manage child protection concerns”, the report said.

Social isolation

The ‘infantilisation’ of young people with learning disabilities, their social isolation and a lack of empowerment contribute to failing to recognise that young people with learning disabilities experience CSE, the research found.

It said: “Young people with learning disabilities share many of the same vulnerabilities to CSE that are faced by all young people, but the evidence indicates that they face additional barriers to their protection, and to receiving support to address CSE.”

Young people with learning disabilities can have more difficulties understanding the complex factors relating to CSE, and professionals had false perceptions that they do not have the same needs, wishes or desires to have a relationship as all young people, it said.

National investment

“The evidence also highlights the need for national investment to develop CSE resources and materials specifically tailored to support direct practice with young people with learning disabilities,” the research said.

Emilie Smeaton, one of the authors of the report, has written a top tips guide for social workers on how they can protect children with disabilities from child sexual exploitation.

Javed Khan, chief executive of Barnardo’s, one of the partners of the report, said that professionals “must get training to recognise the risks faced by children with learning disabilities and help them to stay safe”.

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