Submitted by Mencap (CA 150)
1.1 Mencap welcomes the opportunity to provide evidence to the Committee. We understand the concerns about possible miscarriages of justice, and acknowledge that it is right to seek to ensure that unfounded allegations do not blight the lives of innocent staff.
1.2 Concern about possible miscarriages of justice does need to be balanced against the very real lack of access to justice experienced by children and adults with a learning disability. We would welcome a widening of the Committee's terms of reference to include consideration of all forms of residential provision used by children. Mencap also advocates that the Committee gives special consideration to the rights of children and adults with a learning disability.
1.3 Disabled children are seven times more likely than non-disabled children to be living away from home, most typically in residential provision rather than foster care. Government research has determined that 50 per cent of young people in residential care have special educational needs. There are an estimated 5,500 disabled children living in children's homes. For children with a learning disability a significant trend in recent years has been the increase in 52 week placements in residential schools, usually many miles from the parental home. There are an estimated 16,000 disabled children living in residential school.
1.4 The Utting Report (1997) identified disabled children living away from home as the group of children most vulnerable to abuse. The issues of ensuring access to justice for children living in residential schools and children's homes are identical. Disabled children and adults have been the invisible groups within many official reports on protection even though research summarised by Westcott (1993) indicates that they are four times as likely to be abused as non-disabled people.
1.5 Mencap's research "Behind Closed Doors" (2001) reveals the lack of access to the justice system for people with a learning disability who have been abused. This builds on Mencap's earlier report "Barriers to Justice" which detailed the many barriers that exist within current systems that prevent both children and adults with a learning disability from securing a legal remedy when they have been abused.
1.6 Disabled children and adults typically have communication impairments that mean that their reports of abuse go unheeded. Professionals in residential settings, social workers and the police do not have the skills to communicate with people who may be using a sign system or using a facilitated communication system or expressing themselves through body movements. As one barrister surveyed by Mencap states "I have often felt that those with learning difficulties have been profoundly disadvantaged."
1.7 Disabled children and adults are not regarded as credible victims (Blagg 1989) or as credible witnesses (Robb 1990.) This increases their vulnerability within residential settings as abusers take full advantage of the low probability of conviction or even a disciplinary offence being confirmed if their chosen victim is disabled.
1.8 Disabled children do not have access to relevant sex education or safety skills training. When they are abused they may not recognise this as abuse. As one of Westcott's interviewees revealed "the reason that I didn't tell was that I did not know that was happening was wrong". For many people with a learning disability who have been abused as children it is only as they gain knowledge, communication skills, and self-advocacy skills as adults that they are able to disclose abuse that may have been occurring over an extended period of their childhood. This would argue against the imposition of time limits for investigations of abuse.
1.9 Marchant and Page (1993) report an extensive investigation into abuse of disabled children in a residential setting. They found that when the victims of abuse are disabled they are very much less likely to offer spontaneous disclosure than non-disabled children. This means that particular attention needs to be given to securing evidence of abuse for this group of children. The issue here is not "trawling" for evidence but rather piecing together reports of abuse by children, staff, parents, visitors, and verifying these against other records.
2.1 Investigations of possible abuse experienced by children and adults with a learning disability requires a strong commitment to uphold the right to protection combined with the necessary communication skills. There is also a need to reform the criminal justice system so that people with a learning disability have full and equal access to this system. Too many investigations of possible abuse in residential settings have failed to take into account the particular vulnerability of disabled children and adults and failed to lead to a conviction or even dismissal.
Westcott,H (1993) Abuse of children and adults with disabilities. NSPCC.
Morris, J (1996) Gone Missing? Who Carers Trust.
Utting, W (1997) People Like Us: The Report of the Review of the Safeguards for Children Living Away From Home. Department of Health.
Mencap (2001) Behind Closed Doors; Preventing Sexual Abuse against Adults with a Learning Disability. Mencap.
Mencap (1997) Barriers to Justice. Mencap.
Blagg, H (1989) Child Sexual Abuse. Longman.
Robb, J.C. (1990) The Dilemma of the mentally disabled sexual abuse victim. Developmental Disability Bulletin. 18(2).
Marchant, R and Page, M (1993) Bridging the Gap: Child Protection Work with Children with Multiple Disabilities. NSPCC.