Holding handsChildren with learning disabilities are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation than other children, and face additional barriers to protection and to receiving support, according to new research.

This issue is often hidden as there is limited awareness that young people with learning disabilities are sexually exploited. 

The report, ‘Unprotected, Overprotected’, reveals that significant numbers of children with learning disabilities are not being adequately protected from sexual exploitation because of the false perception that they do not need sex and relationships education or accessible information about how to keep safe online and in the community.

It also found that children with learning disabilities are not being adequately protected due to a lack of specialist services and a failure to implement existing national and local policies.

The report – which was commissioned by Comic Relief and undertaken by Barnardo’s, The Children’s Society, British Institute of Learning Disabilities (BILD), Paradigm Research and Coventry University – calls on the governments in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to ensure that accessible and relevant sex and relationship education is made available to children and young people with learning disabilities.

In addition, the research found a need for more training for professionals and for services to work together to better prevent, identify and provide effective support for these children. Support for parents and raising awareness in the community is also crucial to making sure that children with learning disabilities are kept safe from sexual exploitation. 

Barnardo’s chief executive, Javed Khan, said: “No one wants to believe a child with learning disabilities could ever be exploited in this way, but it is happening all over the UK.

“A lack of awareness of the needs of these vulnerable children is playing into the hands of perpetrators of sexual exploitation. 

“Professionals working with children must get training to recognise the risks faced by children with learning disabilities and help them to stay safe."

Ann Chivers, chief executive of BILD, said the report was “shocking”, adding: “It is deeply troubling that young people with learning disabilities, some of our most vulnerable young people are being sexually exploited every day.

“We want to see a balance between children protection and children’s rights. In denying young people with learning disabilities their sexuality and their need for healthy relationship education, we have inadvertently increased their vulnerability. They need support to be happy, healthy and safe. Such support exists in [pockets throughout the four countries but isn’t joined up, doesn’t share good practice and often relies on uncertain budgets rather than the importance of human lives.”

Matthew Reed, chief executive of The Children’s Society, agreed that young people with learning disabilities need more education on the issue. He said: “They – as is the case with all children – need to be given the knowledge that will help them protect themselves. To understand why they are under threat and what a good relationship is. It is vital that they get the sex and relationship education they need to help keep them safe.”

Dr Anita Franklin, reader in children and families research at Coventry University, added: “It is hoped that this research leads to improvements in how we support young people with learning disabilities to understand the risk of exploitation, and improvements in services that can adequately protect and support this group.”

Read the full report here