Children with learning disabilities at risk of sexual exploitation

Research news

Thursday 10 September 2015

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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.

For further information, interview requests and images please call William Davies at Barnardo’s on 0208 498 7555/ 07584 347290 ( or Beth Herzfeld at The Children’s Society on 020 7841 4422 / 07775 812357 (