Tackling mate crime: ‘We focus on what positive relationships look like’

Exploitation of people with learning disabilities by apparent 'friends' is still not widely discussed. Rod Landman explains ARC's peer-led approach

Young female using Facebook on laptop
Social media makes people vulnerable to many more potential perpetrators of 'mate crime'. Photo: Etienne Ansotte/REX

By Rod Landman, project officer, Association for Real Change

For those unfamiliar with the concept, ‘mate crimes’ are perpetrated on vulnerable people living in the community, largely independently, by those who pretend to be their friends.

Perpetrators form a relationship with their victim and then use the relationship as a vehicle for exploitation or abuse.

Examples of mate crimes include women with learning disabilities being pimped out by their ‘boyfriends’, people whose accommodation was turned into crack dens, women being befriended by paedophiles in order to gain access to their children, and perpetrators living on someone else’s benefits.

In the case of Steven Hoskin in St Austell in 2006, it was murder by people who moved in to his accommodation after he cancelled help from agencies.

It was in response to Steven’s murder as well as the anecdotes being told to us by our members that Association for Real Change (ARC) decided to set up a project to tackle mate crime.

Social media danger

A mate crime highlighted to us by a provider in South West England is in many ways an archetypal case.

They told me about a young woman with learning disabilities who used their service. She was an avid user of the internet and particularly Facebook. On the social networking site, she met a man who, after a period of time, told her he had fallen in love and he hoped they could get married, have kids and live happily ever after.

“The only thing is, I’m a bit short on money right now, can you just send me £50?“

The requests for money went on. The service provider was ignorant of this relationship until a member of staff entered the woman’s room one evening and saw her undressing for her ‘fiancée’ in front of a webcam.

This example illustrates the two main forms of exploitation in mate crime, and the link between them.

Boundary testing often starts with financial exploitation and, if it is uninterrupted, it can lead to sexual exploitation.

It also demonstrates how social media and the internet can also make this kind of crime more prevalent. In this case, the perpetrator was in Iceland. People are now no longer prey to just a few people in their home town, but to a whole world of potential abusers.

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Rod Landman will be leading a session on these issues at Community Care Live Birmingham, covering topics including:

  • What makes mate crime different from hate crime and other abuses?
  • What makes some people particularly vulnerable?
  • Safeguarding and reporting issues
  • What we can do about it

Find out more

Positive relationships

There is little in the way of policy to tackle this problem and even less in the way of resources. ARC therefore launched a training initiative, which aims to tackle sexual exploitation through a peer education programme.

The project sought to work with young people with learning disabilities who had experienced exploitation or who were at risk. In practice, of course, this means pretty much anyone.

The trainers wanted to talk to their peers about how to have positive relationships, rather than just focus on the negative relationships that constitute sexual exploitation. This was for two reasons. Firstly, we hope that positive relationships obviate, or at least lessen, the need for bad ones.

Secondly we hope that by talking about good and bad relationships in tandem, people are less likely to mistake the two. Anecdotes from exploitation victims show how people seem prepared to tolerate the most appalling abuses and still believe their persecutor loves them.

The team also decided to focus training sessions on what keeps people safe rather what puts them at risk. If you look at the standard list of risk factors for sexual exploitation, most of them apply to people with learning disabilities. Pointing this out just seemed calculated to alarm.

Provider resistance

The project has not been without its difficulties. A big challenge has been persuading some providers of the need to explore this topic – there is a lot of resistance to discussing it.

It has been both disappointing and astonishing to me that in many services for people with learning disabilities, there is a still belief that safeguarding people means ensuring they remain as ignorant as possible.

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