Taken with a pinch of salt

Case study

The name of the service user has been changed.

Situation: John Webber is 63 and has learning difficulties. He lives on his own, works at People First and leads a very active life. John was sexually assaulted in the shopping centre. He told his colleagues at People First and, with his People First support worker, Susie Stephenson, called the police. He was very clear and detailed. The police wanted to talk to him at his home. John said he had no support there and asked them to come to his work, explaining to them that he had learning difficulties. He had to push them to do this.  

Problem: The police came, but thought John had been pinched in the arm, not sexually assaulted. John corrected them, but was treated as if he had changed his story. Susie said she had helped John call the police and that he had been very clear about the type of assault. The police questioned whether he understood sexual assaults. Finally, they left to check out the CCTV cameras at the shopping centre and were to report back to John at work. Later, John’s council support team called saying the police asked them to assign him an appropriate adult. It would be a stranger as none of their staff had the right training. John was very upset. The police had called the council above his chosen support – People First. He would have to talk to the police with a stranger. Distressed, he dropped the complaint and no longer goes to the shopping mall on his own.   panel responses

Louise Lewis
I am left wondering whether something went wrong with John’s initial complaint. It is difficult to understand how sexual assault was interpreted as a pinch on the arm when someone has been clear with their statement. There appears to be evidence that John was not taken seriously and possibly discriminated against. Confidentiality was also breached with the police contacting the council support team. Most authorities now have interagency procedures for the protection of vulnerable adults. This provides a framework for working in partnership with service users and other agencies based on the Department of Health’s No Secrets published in 1999. This document provides guidance on developing and implementing multi-agency policies and procedures to protect vulnerable adults from abuse.

There is no mention of John seeing a doctor, which may be needed regarding his physical and psychological health. An opportunity has also been missed to obtain forensic evidence, supporting again the idea that John has not been believed. The police have clear guidance on dealing with sexual assaults through its advice booklet for rape victims published this year. This includes a declaration to take this type of crime seriously and a duty of care that promises to be kind, sensitive and polite; explain everything so that the victim can understand what is happening and help victims feel as comfortable as possible.

As John’s situation was not resolved his experience could affect him in many ways. John’s eating and sleeping patterns may alter, his emotions could become changeable and unpredictable, and his self-esteem could plummet. John may benefit from help and support from a counsellor, psychologist or Victim Support to cope with the stress. He may wish to submit a formal complaint to the police; this may have a cathartic and empowering effect allowing him to validate his experiences.

Practice would benefit from reflection in order to evaluate events, learn from the experience and identify any educational or training needs or both.1 It should also not be overlooked that there is a sex offender still at large in the local community.

1 M Bond and S Holland, Skills of Clinical Supervision for Nurses, Open University Press, 1999.

Dawn Gillard
This case raises many issues about the understanding of the interagency procedure for the protection of vulnerable adults, legislation and guidance around anti-discriminatory practice, and the Valuing People policies.

As soon as John’s support worker contacted the police, the procedure for protecting vulnerable adults should have been started. This would have provided a framework for agencies to work together effectively with John in a sensitive and appropriate manner. The police appeared not to have understood fully John’s special needs or acknowledged his rights as identified in the Human Rights Act 1998 and Valuing People.

The team manager of the adult disability service, or adult duty team social worker, should have been contacted for advice. John should have been advised to have a medical check so that potentially valuable evidence would not be lost. The police officer interviewing John needed to have specific training or experience in working with people with learning difficulties so as to establish whether a video interview for court proceedings was the best way to represent John’s evidence. A statement should have been taken from John, the People First support worker and witnesses.

The police did not ask John who he would like to support him as an appropriate adult. It is legally acceptable for a friend, a relative, a support worker or someone with experience of working with disabled people who was not employed by the police to be the appropriate adult. Any responsible adult aged 18 or older, who is not a police officer or person employed by the police, could act in this capacity. But John did not want to be represented by a stranger.

John should have been given support throughout this distressing situation by local agencies identified in the multi-agency procedure. This would have included professionals from social services, health, police and the voluntary and private sector agencies. An independent advocate should have been appointed for John to ensure his voice was heard.

Joint agency training in the adult protection procedure and working practice seem to be the key to ensuring that adults with learning difficulties receive equal access to services and that their rights are upheld. This training should be mandatory for all relevant agencies, including police.

User view 

Sexual assault to anyone is disgusting, writes Kathleen Franklin. Usually we think about this sort of assault as secret – in back alleys, bedrooms and so on. Men and women like us experience sexual assault even more than people who do not have learning difficulties – a fact known to most professionals. While this assault to us can be hidden, it also often takes place in public – as was the case with John. Still, I am constantly shocked by how little professionals know about supporting us when we experience sexual assault.  

Ignorance sums up John’s case. Ignorance that has led to discrimination. Here is what I think should happen. First, the police need to investigate the call John made to them. The case study says John was clear on the phone about the type of assault. His support person made sure it was all clear. Yet, somehow the police thought John was pinched on the arm! While there is a small chance that the police made a clerical error, it is more likely that they did not believe John because he has learning difficulties. After all, the police officer had the nerve to suggest to Susie that John probably doesn’t understand what sexual abuse is. Obviously people like us don’t have brains – NOT!  

Second, the police should have respected John’s choice of People First as his advocacy and support organisation. If he had gone to Victim Support for help, would they have called social services above his head? Probably not. At least social services told John about the call and left the choice with him.  

Third, do the police understand the law about appropriate adults? We checked with a lawyer. The only person who must have an appropriate adult is a vulnerable person who is accused of a crime. A witness or victim does not have to have an appropriate adult present – although they can choose to have one. I often advise our members to choose to have support when meeting the police to make sure we are not taken advantage of – remember Stephen Downing?  

Some of our brothers in the US have been on Death Row for crimes they did not do, but were tricked into confessing to them. The police need to respect us when we ask for support. We are not ashamed of having learning difficulties or asking for support, but it can make us feel really stupid to have to keep insisting to someone that we cannot read in order to get the support we need.  

Kathleen Franklin is chairperson, Milton KeynesPeople First.


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