9 Sep 2015

Children with learning disabilities are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation than other children, facing additional barriers to their protection and to receiving support, new research from a coalition of leading organisations reveals.

This issue is particularly hidden because few children with learning disabilities meet high thresholds for support from services. There is also limited awareness that young people with learning disabilities are sexually exploited. 

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.

The research also reveals that significant numbers of children with learning disabilities are not being adequately protected due to a worrying 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 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.

The research highlights the 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 awareness raising 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.'

Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society said: 'As is all too clear from our work with young people, children with learning disabilities are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation. They — as is the case with all children — need to be given the knowledge that will help them protect themselves. To understand when 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.'

Ann Chivers, Chief Executive of BILD said: 'It’s a shocking report. 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 child 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.'

Emilie Smeaton, Research Director, Paradigm Research, said: 'The research provides timely evidence that supports an agenda for change to meet this group of children’s needs and ensure adequate protection from child sexual exploitation.'

Dr Anita Franklin, Reader in Children and Families Research, Coventry University, said: 'This research has placed the spotlight on the additional barriers children and young people with learning disabilities face to being protected, and highlighted that there is little support for those who do experience sexual exploitation. 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.'


Media enquiries

For more information, interview requests and images please call William Davies at Barnardo’s on 0208 498 7555/ 07584 347 290 (email) or Beth Herzfeld at The Children’s Society on 020 7841 4422 / 07775 812 357 (email).

Notes to editors

  • The report is being launched at an event in Westminster on Thursday 10 September. For more information on the event please contact Barnardo’s senior media officer William Davies.
  • A series of events will also be held in the devolved nations on the following dates: Northern Ireland – 18 September ,  Wales – September 29, Scotland – October 6
  • Find the full report and summary version of ‘Unsupported, Overprotected’
  • Child sexual exploitation is used to cover a broad spectrum of activity from seemingly ‘consensual’ relationships or informal exchanges of sex for attention, accommodation, gifts or cigarettes through to serious, organised crime
  • About Barnardo’s: Barnardo’s has been operating services for young people affected by sexual exploitation since 1994 and now deliver services in 47 locations across the UK. Barnardo’s works with more than 200,000 children, young people and their families each year. Barnardo’s runs more than 900 services across the UK. We work to transform the lives of the UK’s most vulnerable children and every year we help thousands of families to build a better future. But we cannot do it without you. Visit the Barnardo's website find out how you can get involved and show you believe in children. Follow Barnardo’s media team on Twitter @BarnardosNews.
  • About The Children’s Society: The Children’s Society is a national charity that runs local projects, helping children and young people when they are at their most vulnerable, and have nowhere left to turn. We also campaign for changes to laws affecting children and young people, to stop the mistakes of the past being repeated in the future. Our supporters around the country fund our services, volunteer with us, and join our campaigns to show children and young people they are on their side. For more information and to get involved see our homepage.
  • About BILD, the British Institute of Learning Disabilities: As well as being respected in society and involved in their communities, people with learning disabilities want the kind of support that helps them make the choices and decisions about the important things in their lives. BILD’s services - from workplace training and qualifications support, to consultancy, conferences and publishing - help organisations review their frameworks and develop their staff, and individuals review their own practice, so that their support works to help make great lives.
  • About Paradigm Research: Emilie Smeaton is research director of Paradigm Research and has extensive experience of carrying out research, evaluation and consultation relating to young people who experience, or are at risk of, child sexual exploitation.