Research into practice

Jill Manthorpe looks at research into sexual
abuse of people with learning difficulties and reforms proposed to
safeguard them.

With the implementation of the No Secrets
adult protection guidance1 in England, Mencap, Voice UK
and Respond have produced a report arguing that legal reform is
still urgently needed in this area.

The report focuses on a variety of evidence
about the high rates of sexual abuse among people with a learning
difficulty and contributory risk factors. It emphasises that equal
access to justice is now imperative. Practitioners may wish to join
in with campaigning work in this area and will find details on
Mencap’s website.

The report presents the case that sexual abuse
is often not disclosed, not taken to court and less likely to
result in a conviction if the person making the allegation has a
learning difficulty. Moreover, the long-term impact can be severe
and this is illustrated by a series of case studies. Skilled work
with adults who disclose abuse from their childhood is singled out
as an area needing new protocols. We need, in my view, more
practice guidance and research in this area, and of course, without
resources, very little long term support can be sustained.

Separate areas are identified for legal
reform. The report, however, makes it clear that adults with a
learning difficulty have a right to sexual activity, if it is
consensual, and to privacy and dignity. It reminds readers that
adults’ status is different to children’s. First, the report makes
the case for reform in the area of capacity to consent and a new
formulation of the inadequate offence “sexual intercourse with a
defective” to “sexual relations with a person with a severe
learning difficulty who is unable to consent to that sexual
activity.” This should provide greater clarity.

The second area covers the exploitation of
relationships that result in abuse of people with a learning
difficulty. The report proposes a new offence in this area and
argues for this to be applicable to all settings and to volunteers
as well as paid staff.

The third area draws on research to argue that
the sentencing system should be revised to reflect the seriousness
of offences in this area. Penalties should be higher. Indeed a new
offence should criminalise abusers who obtain sex by threats or
deception. Again this could apply to care settings but also to
those who target vulnerable people with a learning difficulty in
community settings.

Alongside specific reforms, the report sees
training as important in helping people with a learning difficulty
to recognise abuse and suggests that they should be involved in
planning and delivering training. It offers a reminder that
agencies will need to start making plans now for the changes coming
on stream arising from the reforms of the Speaking Up for
2 report from the Home Office (1998) on
court practices. This should help complainants and witnesses. It
confirms that vulnerable witnesses have often been denied

This readable report sums up legal issues that
have been discussed previously but represents a concerted attempt
to push for policy change. It is a useful document for those
working within new local policies and procedures: reminding us that
these have their limits in a context of problems with the legal and
justice systems.

The report Behind Closed Doors: Preventing
Sexual Abuse Against Adults with a Learning Disability
Mencap, Voice UK and Respond, 2001. Available from Voice UK, The
College Business Centre, Uttoxeter New Road, Derby, DE22 3WZ,
telephone (01332) 362 717 or from the Mencap website on  

Jill Manthorpe is reader in community
care at the University of Hull and chairperson of the Hull and East
Riding Adult Protection Committee.


1 Department of Health,
No Secrets, DoH, 2000

2 Home Office, Speaking
Up for Justice
, Home Office, 1998

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