Recognising and Responding to Young People With Learning Disabilities Who Experience, or Are at Risk of, Child Sexual Exploitation in the UK

Findings from recent studies suggest there is an increased risk of child sexual exploitation (CSE) for young people with learning disabilities. However, there is a lack of evidence concerning how best to protect, identify and support these young people. This exploratory study aimed to address this gap by examining the identification of, and support for sexually exploited young people with learning disabilities.

Authors Anita Franklin and Emilie Smeaton

Published by Children and Youth Services Review 73, (2017)

Policy context

Identifying the prevalence of CSE among children and young people with learning disabilities can be a particular challenge for a number of reasons:

  • Children and young people may not be aware that they are being exploited and therefore do not seek support.
  • Professionals may lack awareness and knowledge of the indicators of CSE, leading to under-recognition and recording.
  • Children and young people may not have a formal diagnosis related to their disability, and/or may not meet the threshold for services, again resulting in under-reporting.
  • Disabled children are often treated as one homogenous group, making it difficult to establish the prevalence of abuse/exploitation of children with learning disabilities or communication needs.

All four UK nations have developed guidance and/or action plans to safeguard children from sexual exploitation. However, recent guidance in England is non-statutory, and does not address the particular needs of young people with a learning disability.

The study utilised a mixed methods approach comprising the following:

  1. An online survey of all local authorities across the UK (34 per cent response rate).
  2. Online surveys of services supporting either vulnerable or disabled children/young people. A snowballing approach was used to identify potential participants.
  3. In-depth interviews with 34 statutory and voluntary sector stakeholders.
  4. Interviews with young people with learning disabilities who had experienced, or been at risk of, CSE (age range 12-23 years; seven male and 20 female; 15 identified as having experienced CSE, 12 deemed at risk of CSE).

Study findings

Key themes, which were consistently identified by study participants, are outlined here.

  • Young people with learning disabilities are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation due to a number of factors including:
  • Over protection - and not being given opportunities to learn, develop and take risks in the same ways as their non-disabled peers
  • Disempowerment - including not being listened to or involved in decisions about their lives
  • Social isolation - making them vulnerable to grooming
  • Lack of sex and relationship education - and knowledge concerning sexual exploitation
  • Failure of adults to recognise CSE - many professionals reported that child protection professionals are ill-informed about learning disabilities. Conversely, it was reported that there is a lack of knowledge of CSE among social workers within children's disability teams.
  • Invisibility of young people with learning disabilities to services. There was a widely held view that young people with learning disabilities are not routinely referred to support services. In addition, young people with mild to moderate learning disabilities may not meet the criteria for targeted services. Lack of recognition and understanding of this level of learning disability when there is no formal diagnosis can present problems for young people in school settings, leading them to disengage and/or to be excluded. This can increase their vulnerability to CSE.
  • Gaps in national and local policy and a lack of implementation of existing guidance. For example, 41 per cent of local authorities stated that they had a specialist CSE service, but only half of these felt that the services were able to meet the needs of young people with learning disabilities. Of particular concern was that 25 per cent of local authorities without any specialist service did not have any other support available in its place.


Implications for practice

  • There is a need for local multi-agency training for all professionals whose work includes responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of young people. For CSE professionals, this should include training that focuses on learning disabilities, Autistic Spectrum Condition and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Professionals who work with young people with learning disabilities should receive training to improve their awareness of CSE.
  • Support should be available for young people with learning disabilities to: reduce social isolation; help them understand CSE, healthy relationships, risk and consent; and receive advice about internet safety.
  • The findings support previous studies which have called for statutory and practice guidance concerning CSE to be fully implemented, with a particular focus on young people with learning disabilities.

The research section for this special report is based on a selection of academic studies which have been explored and summarised by Research in Practice, part of the Dartington Hall Trust

This article is part of CYP Now's special report on exploitation and vulnerability. Click here for more

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