How social workers can protect children with learning disabilities from sexual exploitation

Emilie Smeaton, one of the authors of a report published today on the sexual exploitation of children with learning disabilities, gives these key tips to social workers

Photo: Flickr/Nadia Hatoum

by Emilie Smeaton

Unprotected, overprotected’ is UK-wide research addressing the sexual exploitation of children and young people with learning disabilities. This has provided the following evidence-based key lessons for social workers to take forward into their practice:

Children with learning disabilities have similar vulnerabilities to sexual exploitation as other children and young people

This issue is hidden because few children and young people with learning disabilities meet high thresholds for support, and there is limited awareness that this group are sexually exploited.  It’s important for disability teams to access training and other CSE awareness-raising activities, and for child protection teams to build links with disability services. It is important to avoid working ‘in silos’ and ensure partnership working between child protection services and disability services.


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Social workers can learn how to build a strong evidence base for child sexual exploitation, as well as understand the different models of exploitation and grooming, at Community Care Live.
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Guidance on sex, relationships, keeping safe and risk-taking must be a part of every child’s care plan and support

This helps children and young people with learning disabilities to build their understanding, knowledge and confidence, and reduce social isolation. This should form part of a life course approach to supporting them as they grow into adulthood.

It can be inherently challenging for someone with a learning disability to understand the factors relating to CSE

Social workers should also ensure support is provided to parents and carers to improve their awareness of CSE and enable them to protect and support their children, both online and offline.

Listen to children and young people with learning disabilities

Their lack of empowerment contributes directly to their increased vulnerability to CSE. In addition, not being listened to led to some disclosures not being taken seriously. They also may not report CSE because they do not know they are being sexually exploited, and may fear getting into trouble.

Disclosures happen after a strong relationship has been built

These relationships are based on trust and listening to the young person, thus reinforcing
 the importance of long-term support for young people affected by CSE. This emphasises the need for professionals to ensure that they not only undertake a thorough assessment of young people’s needs and circumstances, but also present themselves in such a way that the child or young person feels comfortable talking to them and assured that they will be listened too and believed.

Responses should focus on individual needs, including how they communicate and learn

In the absence of identifiable CSE resources specifically for children and young people with learning disabilities many specialist CSE professionals described how they adapted existing CSE resources for targeted work with an individual. There is evidence that this can work well to support with increasing children and young people’s understanding of risk, CSE and steps that assist with keeping safe.

Children and young people with learning disabilities who are victims may exhibit inappropriate sexual behaviours or become involved in exploiting others

There is a clear need for cross-agency awareness-raising to ensure appropriate responses are put in place that include treating these children and young people as victims and ensuring they receive support to address abuse and trauma.

The work should continue into adult services too

The research reveals the importance of addressing the needs of young people with learning disabilities once they become 18 years old and approach transition from children’s to adults’ services. Preventative work around relationships, consent and sexual exploitation is seen to be a crucial part of preparing young people with learning disabilities for adult life and an essential part of any transition planning.

  • Unprotected, Overprotected was written by Emilie Smeaton, Anita Franklin and Phil Raws, and warns that a low level of understanding of learning disabilities can prevent social workers from properly protecting children from sexual exploitation
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