Situation: Sunita Chauhan is a 32-year-old woman with learning difficulties who lives in a private care home. Recently, Sunita told a support worker at the home that the night staff worker on duty the night before had touched her private parts and made her watch a film that she didn’t like while he played with himself. Sunita went to her brother’s house and told him. He said she could stay with him until it was sorted out. The manager told Sunita’s social worker about the allegations but said she “always” makes up these types of stories.
Problem: A social worker visited Sunita at her work placement and told her that she shouldn’t make things up. She then arranged a meeting at the home, but didn’t tell Sunita or her brother. The following week the adult protection officer arranged a strategy meeting. Again, Sunita and her brother weren’t invited nor were they told that the police were going to interview Sunita after the meeting. After the interview with Sunita and her brother, the police decided not to take any further action. Six months later, Sunita is still at home. The social worker said she can’t go back to the care home. Recently the father of another young woman with learning difficulties has refused to carry on giving Sunita a lift to her work placement as he’s been told she is a risk to men.
Historically, people with learning difficulties have not felt empowered to report incidents of sexual abuse, but following the publication of the No Secrets document and the growth in the advocacy and self-advocacy movement, services are being forced to accept that this is a very real issue and that people with learning difficulties can be very vulnerable. In Sunita’s case, the services are obviously still somewhat behind the times.
By immediately accepting the home manager’s interpretation of the situation, the social worker is clearly not providing a person-centred service to Sunita. I would question the competence of the social worker to commission services for Sunita, if the relationship she has with her is so poor.
I would recommend that Sunita be given the opportunity to talk about what has happened with a counsellor or psychologist, who should accept what Sunita is saying. It may be that Sunita did “make up a story” but she must have a reason for doing so. It may be that she is actually trying to tell people about an abusive experience from the past, or in a different setting. She may be unhappy in the home for other reasons, but is not sure how to communicate this. It is interesting that there is no suggestion of similar “stories” at the workplace.
It is not clear if Sunita has the opportunity to express her sexuality. Perhaps the “stories” are an expression of her frustration. It would be useful to explore her understanding of sexuality and relationships.
It is essential that this situation is resolved for Sunita. If her account is true, she needs the appropriate therapeutic support to deal with what has happened and to develop her assertiveness to reduce her vulnerability. She may also want support to make a complaint about the way she has been treated by the home, social worker and police, which would be best provided by an independent advocate.
The social worker is clear that she cannot return to the care home, but does not seem to be looking for alternatives or providing support to Sunita’s brother. It is as if Sunita is being punished for bad behaviour, rather than services working together to meet her needs in a person-centred manner.
This is a serious incident that should have triggered a thorough investigation under a vulnerable adults procedure. At all times the staff involved, that is the support worker, the home manager and the social worker, should have made written records of what was reported and actions taken.
It is not clear if the social worker informed her manager of the alleged incident. This would be the first step towards a strategy planning discussion with the police on the same day that the incident was reported. The police would take the lead role in the investigation which would involve interviewing Sunita.
The need for an appropriate adult to represent Sunita in such a sensitive process should have been identified. It would also be necessary to ensure that Sunita understood what was happening and that the professionals involved used an appropriate form of communication.
It is important to remember that Sunita would have the right to refuse to give any information about the incident if she chose to. However, the incident would still have to be investigated internally by social services.
While the investigation was in progress, Sunita’s social worker should have maintained regular contact with her and her brother. Sunita’s well-being and safety are paramount. Being clear that services were aware of Sunita’s wishes and were seen to be responsive to these should have been a crucial feature of social work intervention.
The care home should also follow their own procedures when an allegation has been made by a service user about a member of staff. There is no suggestion in this situation that Sunita’s comments have been taken seriously or that the care home has been concerned about its member of staff or the potential threat to other service users.
Sunita appears to have been given no choice about returning to the care home – her home. She has been completely disempowered. Every effort should be made for Sunita’s wishes to be respected and if she wanted to return to the care home this should be facilitated. Attention should also have been given to individual work with Sunita to help her come to terms with this incident, and the involvement of skilled input from psychologists or counsellors should be considered.
A big mess! That’s how we would sum up what has happened to Sunita. It’s not funny at all. Her social worker and the care home should be ashamed, write Kathleen Franklin and Colin Gear. It was so brave of Sunita to speak up. We know how scary this can be. But, did the care home recognise this bravery? No, instead they didn’t believe her – something that can be very damaging to people who have been abused. Sunita should have had medical attention right away to make sure she was not hurt, pregnant, had picked up a disease, and to get any evidence of the abuse for the police or for private prosecution. She should have been offered counselling and an advocate. It’s disgusting that the manager of the home used the excuse of Sunita always making up stories of abuse to not deal with what might have happened to Sunita. First, we are tired of people stereotyping us as being obsessed with sex. Second, if Sunita made up stories before why hasn’t she had support for this? Maybe she has been abused in the past. Third, even if she has made up stories like this before, it doesn’t mean that she is making it up now. Our people are more likely to be abused and we should be taken especially seriously. Next, the social worker should not have told Sunita off at work. She should have taken her somewhere safe, offered her support, and asked for her side of the story. She had no right to set up meetings without telling Sunita. What about Sunita’s right to have an appropriate adult? We thought social workers are supposed to have training! But where does this leave Sunita? It leaves her in a mess. While it was very kind of her brother to take her in, in one way this has made it easier for the social worker to forget about her. She is stuck at her brother’s. How nice for her social worker not have to support her to find a new place to live. Sunita has been punished for being a victim. She has lost her home and maybe her friends. Now men are becoming nervous of her and the mess is getting bigger. We worry she will lose her job because she doesn’t have a lift. If only things had been done properly in the first place. If they had taken Sunita at her word and investigated what she said properly, she wouldn’t probably have been placed in this mess.
Kathleen Franklin and Colin Gear are members of Milton Keynes People First – an advocacy group run by and for people with learning difficulties.