Dan Parton cutA recent report by Barnardo’s said that children with learning disabilities are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation than other children, and face additional barriers to receiving protection and support. This has to change.

Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is an issue that has garnered much media coverage  in recent years, with a string of high-profile convictions of paedophile gangs who have exploited vulnerable children and young people. But one group of children who have not made headlines are those with learning disabilities, who, as Barnado’s’ report, ‘Underprotected, overprotected’ noted, are more vulnerable to CSE .

This should be making headlines, because the effects are no less destructive for this group of victims. As 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.”

Khan is right, and there are a number of factors that have led us to this situation. Those include a legacy of paternalistic care and services for people with learning disabilities. It was often assumed that they, since they were viewed as having the mind of a child, would not be interested in – or capable of – sex and adult relationships. As a result, they didn’t get the same sex education that their non-disabled peers received during their schooling.

Of course, these assumptions were, and are, wrong, but too often children and young people still do not get sex and relationships education, nor advice on how to stay safe online – a growing area of opportunity for child sexual exploitation. 

This has to change: all children, regardless of disability, need to be aware of potential dangers and what is and isn’t inappropriate in terms of sex. If necessary, information should be in easy-read format for people with learning disabilities, and delivered in ways that are relevant to them.

The report also called for more training for professionals and for services to work together to better prevent abuse, and to identify and provide effective support for these children. And it said that support for parents and raising awareness in the community are crucial to making sure that children with learning disabilities are kept safe from sexual exploitation.

Here, again, there must be change. The report found inconsistent levels of awareness and partnership working across the country – and the same for implementation of national CSE guidance. Investment in training and developing partnership working could go a long way to helping to identify children in danger.

Children with learning disabilities are often a hidden group in society – something that perpetrators of such crimes will know – and they need to be empowered to speak out if they are victims. Crucially, this includes being believed when they do – an issue, not just for learning disability professionals, but for teachers, police and others.

For too long, CSE was an issue swept under the carpet, seemingly with people hoping that it would just go away. We must not let the issue of the sexual exploitation of children and young people with learning disabilities  continue to be ignored, in a similar way: Child sexual exploitation must be seen for what it is –  a serious crime that can have a fundamental, and, sometimes, long-term impact on the lives of victims and their families.