The forced marriage of learning disabled people is a hidden scandal. Mithran Samuel asks how practitioners might spot such cases and safeguard service users
Ali was 19 when his parents took him out of the country to be married to someone from their home country whom he had never met. Learning disabled, with complex medical needs, he needed 24-hour support.
When told about the marriage plan, his social worker told the family to desist.
They became angry and told her she did not understand their culture, making the social worker anxious about offending them.
She discussed it at her next supervision session two weeks later, at which she and her manager decided they would visit the family. By then, Ali was gone.
The case illustrates some of the many challenges facing social workers in safeguarding learning disabled people at risk of forced marriage.
Fifty-three cases involving people with learning disabilities were reported to the FMU last year. However, incidents are “likely to be vastly under-reported”, says the guidance, drawn up by learning disability charities the Ann Craft Trust and the Judith Trust.
“What’s needed is a lot more awareness raising and more support for frontline professionals in dealing with situations where they suspect there may be forced marriage,” says Rachael Clawson of the Ann Craft Trust, a former social worker who co-wrote the guidance.
The hidden nature of the problem arises in part from the different way it presents to other forced marriage cases.
As with Ali, up to a half of learning disabled victims are male, unlike with other forced marriage cases, where victims are predominantly female.
Learning disabled victims tend not to report the forced marriage themselves, unlike other victims. Self-referrals accounted for two of 41 learning disability cases reported to the FMU from January to October 2010.
The marriage will often be forced because the victim lacks the capacity to consent.
Professionals may also not see any signs of visible duress in learning disabled victims, who may appear excited about marriage.
“Sometimes the parents will say it’s a big party and that they are going to get a new friend,” says Suzelle Dickson, joint head of the FMU.
The guidance lists a number of warning signs to look out for, including service users talking about jewellery or wedding clothes, or being taken out of school or a day centre without explanation. They may also exhibit changed behaviour such as increased anxiety or joy, or becoming withdrawn.
Families may also have very different motives for forcing learning disabled children into marriage than in other cases, including looking for a long-term carer for them.
“Parents can be well-meaning,” says Louise Wallis, policy officer at charity Respond, which received funding from the FMU to produce an easy-read booklet for learning disabled people on the issue. “Quite often they are concerned about the longer-term welfare of their son or daughter.”
This means that there may be an opportunity to discuss alternative options with the family, an approach the guidance suggests should have been taken in Ali’s case.
The guidance stresses that if mediation is pursued, it should only be by professionals with specialised knowledge, and in exceptional circumstances.
“If the social worker identifies more with the parents then they are not safeguarding the people they are trying to protect,” says Wallis. Often the family will not co-operate, however.
The guidance says social workers should contact local forced marriage leads as soon as possible, but will often need to gather information themselves immediately.
This may involve securing appropriate support with communication for the victim.
Safeguarding may require immediate placement away from the family or an assessment of capacity to consent to marriage. The latter may help secure a forced marriage protection order for the victim, says Dickson.
These civil orders place legally binding restrictions on perpetrators, such as banning them from taking victims abroad.
Dearth of support services
However, safeguarding is only half the battle. There is a dearth of support services for people with learning disabilities who have been victims of forced marriage, and are often left traumatised and devoid of the family support systems they have relied on all their lives.
Beverley Lewis House in London (see panel) is a rare example. This means a key audience for the guidance is commissioners, says Clawson.
“We need more organisations working with men only, and need more refuge places for men and women with learning disabilities,” she says. “There aren’t really the services available.”
Case study: A refuge for women with learning disabilities who are victims of forced marriages
Beverley Lewis House offers support for women with learning disabilities who have been victims of forced marriages
“The thing that I find most difficult is that women are traumatised and they are going to live in a care home,” says Asha Jama, manager of Beverley Lewis House in London. “It’s bad enough that their lives are torn, then their needs are not met. I find that a challenge.”
Beverley Lewis House, a refuge for women with learning disabilities and additional needs, is one of very few sources of specialist support for learning disabled victims of forced marriage.
The women who end up in care homes – or other non-specialist services such as mainstream refuges – are those it is unable to provide for. Local authority-funded, it has seven places and clients tend to spend two to three years receiving support, as opposed to about six months for a mainstream refuge. However, it is facing increasing numbers of forced marriage cases.
Support is very intensive. “We have regular one-to-one talks at any time of day or night, for them to talk through their feelings.”
Its first priority is training women to keep themselves safe, in conjunction with safeguarding teams. Many feel very lonely and isolated and want to get in touch with their family. “They may say, ‘I’ll go and talk to my sister’, and we will talk to them about what they want out of that discussion and what the dangers might be.”
Staff provide basic counselling, including cognitive behavioural therapy, and other services such as art therapy. Some women are referred to specialist mental health services.
“They are in shock; their lives have changed. They can become depressed and anxious and there can be behavioural problems. We know our limits.”
Finding the right method of communication is key, says Jama. “All of the information we use is pictorial. We use Makaton, [which involves signs and symbols], and British Sign Language.”
This level of specialism means Beverley Lewis House is a national service that has taken referrals from all over the UK, including Edinburgh and Northern Ireland.
Unsurprisingly, Jama has concerns for the future because of funding cuts, but she is able to demonstrate positive outcomes to commissioners. Women move on to supported living or shared housing ownership schemes and often need limited support, and also act as a network for each other, she says.
“We do market ourselves and go out to do presentations and workshops around the country. [Funding] always involves walking a tightrope but the outcomes for the women are amazing.”
● See the person immediately in a secure and private place. Reassure them about confidentiality.
● Assess the immediate risk and consider the need for placement away from family.
● Carry out a capacity assessment if capacity to consent to marriage is in doubt.
● Consult a trained specialist as soon as possible.
● Check police and social care records for past referrals from the same family.
● Make assumptions about capacity or communication requirements.
● Use relatives or community leaders as interpreters or translators.
Source: Forced Marriage Unit guidance
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