Adult abuse; the shocking truth

June 1, 2009

Helen is in her mid-twenties and has severe learning difficulties. She lives in a residential home. One evening, a temporary member of staff covers the night shift. He rapes Helen, and she doesn’t know how to explain to anyone what happened. Five months later, her care team realise that Helen is going to have a baby. “They discovered the relief care agency hadn’t done the proper checks,” recalls a care professional, speaking anonymously. A forensic investigation tracked down the temporary worker, an illegal immigrant who had written his own references. “He got sent to prison and the case was lauded a success. But I don’t call it a success when a woman with severe learning difficulties who can’t speak for herself is raped and has a baby.”
Success is a relative term where the abuse of vulnerable adults some elderly, people with dementia, and those with mental or physical disabilities is concerned. In the wake of the Baby P revelations, the Department of Health is doing all it can to reassure us that it is safeguarding Britain’s children. But while child-abuse cases frequently hit the headlines, many of those involving adults never even make it to court. This is because vulnerable adults often don’t fit the criteria of “reliable witnesses”. Our courts define reliable witnesses as people who can remember names and dates and hold up under cross-examination. If you find it hard to remember your own address and date of birth, it’s going to be difficult to stand up in front of a jury under cross-examination and provide enough circumstantial evidence to identify a rapist.

The criminal-justice system is becoming more flexible, allowing adults in these circumstances to go to court with “special measures”: they can give evidence via video link, say, or interviews taken before trial can be used. And the Independent Safeguarding Authority which evolved after it emerged that the Soham murderer Ian Huntley had previously escaped detection by moving counties and changing his name is tightening up practices for people who work with adults or children. But this legal awareness is in a fledgling state, and meanwhile scores of adults who effectively remain outside the protection of the law are still in danger.

Corin Yates, a social-care professional in the south of England, deals with high numbers of such cases every year. One that he can’t shake from his mind involved sexual abuse in a care home. “There were a number of disclosures against a member of staff, but he was a plausible character and it was difficult to believe he was guilty,” he says. “No allegations against him were taken seriously. When about 10 people had made similar accusations, the police felt there was evidence, but no credible witnesses.” The case didn’t get anywhere. “The abuser knew the victims would never get to court. For those victims, there’s no justice. For the abuser, no punishment.”

Imogen Patterson works as a multi-agency liaison officer in Southampton, dealing with vulnerable adults at risk. “There are some fairly horrid cases of sexual abuse across a range of individuals with learning disabilities, as well as older people,” she agrees. “That’s something people find difficult to accept.” As a consequence there is, says Patterson, a dearth of legislation to deal with adult abuse. “There is a lack of parity with children’s services,” she says. “As tragic as the Baby P and Victoria Climbie cases were, we’ve had similar scandals.” In 2001, a year after Victoria Climbie’s death was brought to light, Margaret Panting was found. Panting was 78 years old, and died five weeks after moving in with relatives. Police discovered 49 injuries including cigarette burns and cuts from razor blades and an official report concluded she had died after suffering “unbelievable cruelty”. Yet as a cause of death could not be established, an inquest the following year recorded an open verdict. Nobody was charged.

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