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Are Harlow’s students with learning needs safe from sexual exploitation?

News / Tue 22nd Sep 2015 at 11:18am

Sheila CoatesBy Heidi Wilkins

A recent study has shown that children with learning disabilities are not adequately protected from sexual exploitation due to false perceptions that they do not need education about sex and relationships.

The research also revealed that many children with learning disabilities are not being adequately protected due to a lack of specialist services and a failure to implement national and local policies.

The study was commissioned by Comic Relief and carried out by Barnardo’s, The Children’s Society, the British Institute of Learning Disabilities (BILD), Paradigm Research and Coventry University.

Sheila Coates MBE, founder of South Essex Rape and Incest Crisis Centre (SERICC) works with victims of sexual violence and is pleased to see the report talking about the vulnerability of children with learning disabilities because nationally statutory organisations haven’t tended to make the link between learning disabilities (in children and adults).

Ms Coates agrees that it is important to provide sex education in schools to enable safety online, but said: “The report neglected to focus on perpetrators of abuse and how crimes against those with learning disabilities will be investigated.”

She highlights the weaknesses of the report, which fails to adequately discuss sexual abuse by somebody known to the victim. Instead the study focuses on sexual exploitation, which always involves somebody unknown to the victim and often external to the victim’s family: “Sexual exploitation is a subset of sexual abuse and research shows that children and adults with learning disabilities are the most vulnerable to sexual abuse. While it is important to tackle sexual exploitation online, it is important to tackle sexual abuse of children and adults by people known to them, such as family members, carers, and teachers.”

The other concern raised by Ms Coates is the lack of resources for victims of sexual exploitation and abuse: “When cases are referred to the criminal justice system, adults and children with learning disabilities are entitled to an intermediary or an advocate to support them through the process. Where will that come from? Have Thurrock got plans for this?”

At SERRIC, a Specialist Learning Disabilites Counsellor is a key member of staff for supporting victims of abuse. Yet Ms Coates says that this position is very difficult to get funded: “The lack of understanding of how learning disabilities affects vulnerable groups has meant that this important position is only funded until March 2016.”

SERRIC continueS to work with partners such as Thurrock Lifestyle Solutions to raise awareness of these issues and provide support for parents of children with learning disabilities who have been sexually assaulted or exploited.

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