How people with learning disabilities face bullying and harassment

In time, the name Steven Hoskin may become as lodged in our memories as that of another man who shares his first name, and for similar, grim reasons. Stephen Lawrence is probably the most well-known victim of racially motivated murder. Hoskin, who had learning disabilities and was killed by three people last year, looks likely to be the first person that comes to mind when we think of hate crime against disabled people in the future.

His horrific murder – he plunged to his death from a viaduct after being forced to swallow 70 paracetamol tablets – was reported in the media and may generate public debate about people with learning disabilities living in the community when a serious case review is published in December.

The attention devoted to Hoskin’s killing is a sign, perhaps, of a growing realisation that people with learning disabilities are frequently victimised because of their disability.

Most are not subjected to the torture and abuse endured by Hoskin most do not die. But one expert, who prefers not to be named, cautions: “This is the tip of the iceberg. There have been three deaths this year but the reality is there are probably much larger numbers being exploited in the community.”

Independent living will be the future for many more people with learning disabilities, thanks to the government drive to move them from institutional care to homes in the community. A hostile reception awaits some, while others are seen as easy pickings for exploitation by people who “befriend” them and then go on to use their homes, eat their food, steal their money. Although many people need support to live in the community safely and comfortably, there are growing fears that they are not getting it because over-stretched adult services budgets are being used for those with high needs.

The result is that unknown numbers of people with learning disabilities are being left under-supported, isolated and, like Hoskin, dangerously exposed to people intent on bullying or exploiting them.

Extent of bullying

A Community Care survey, published in May, found 16% of almost 2,000 people said they had been bullied on the street in the last year. And this month’s annual report from the Learning Disability Task Force cites hate crime as a key issue to be tackled. Name calling, being spat at, stone throwing, graffiti daubed on front doors – and that is just the so-called low-level bullying.

Diane* had lived contentedly in her maisonette for eight years. She had friends on the street, plenty of visitors and a well-tended garden that was her pride and joy. Then a new neighbour moved in upstairs and the name-calling started – “spastic”, “mad woman”, “idiot”. Sometimes to Diane’s face, other times shouted from a window for all to hear. She has had fox faeces smeared on her front door. She has become afraid of inviting people round – even people who were once frequent visitors.

Complaints to the council and police have resulted in warnings but not any action. “I’ve been given diary sheets by the council to make a note of what happens. The police have told me to ignore it. They’re not bothered about people with learning disabilities,” she says, adding: “When she calls me names I go inside, lock the door and have a little cry.”

Diane is one of thousands of people with learning disabilities for whom bullying is a daily reality, an unending nightmare.

For the lucky few, it will be a one-off incident. But it can go on for months, even years, before any action is taken – if any effective action is taken at all. Kirstie Mann, director of Your Say Advocacy knows of a couple who have been harassed so seriously over the past seven years that they have continually been forced to move. “Their child was taken into care and the local community decided it was because he was a paedophile. Once they were moved just up the road and people found out where they were. They’ve had bricks through their windows, faeces on their door, stuff thrown at them.”

Now one of them always stays in to guard their home. Neither feel safe inside the house or out. Being bullied by one or two people may be distressing but manageable. A campaign of harassment by an entire community intent on driving you out is terrifying and, sadly, likely to succeed. After all, police and other agencies are powerless to take action against the residents of an entire housing estate. Bringing action against an individual often proves difficult enough. Name calling, for example, is not necessarily an offence and getting proof that a crime has been committed can be hard and prosecutions are few. People can complain to housing officers but it is a slow process.

In Diane’s case she has been offered alternative accommodation but understandably does not see why she should leave her home. Her only hope is that her neighbour will move on.

David Congdon, director of policy at Mencap, says: “It’s very difficult to know what the answer should be for someone who is being bullied but they should tell as many people in authority as they can.”

Under section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which came into force in April 2005, those whose offences are deemed to be aggravated by a person’s disability should face an increased sentence. The measures are designed to encourage agencies, including the police, to take hate crime seriously. Nevertheless, police performance is patchy and many people with learning disabilities, like Diane, feel this isn’t happening.

Under-reporting of crimes

WPC Rachel Loveday is a hate crime officer with Hertfordshire police force. She believes crimes have historically been under-reported.

“People with learning disabilities may have felt the police were not sympathetic years ago. We haven’t had an increase in referrals but a lot more people are using our People In Partnership pack,” she says.

The pack explains the law and people’s rights. Loveday says the force operates a 10-week course, which includes showing people how to report crimes.

Raising awareness among people with learning disabilities about their legal rights is essential, partly because those who decide to take the law into their own hands by fighting back can swiftly turn from victim to perpetrator. “If an adult with a learning disability decides to fight back against a child who is bullying them, the child is likely to tell their parents and you get into it being one person’s word against another and then there are some issues about an adult versus a child,” explains Mann.

Social services alone will not be able to safeguard those living in the community. Other professionals, including housing workers, need to be more vigilant. Neighbours have often played an important role in reporting child protection concerns to agencies and could also do more to help in these situations. Sadly, however, for some people with learning disabilities those living closest pose the highest risk.

* Name has been changed

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HOW TO COMBAT BULLIES
Jane Dellow developed Hertfordshire’s People in Partnership pack, which was runner-up for the Home Office National Justice Award in November 2006.

She says: “If you’re being bullied, tell someone, anyone. Then report it to the police and make sure you tell them if it’s because of your disability. They will instantly take it more seriously. Keep yourself safe – carry an alarm or make sure you don’t go out alone.”

➔ For more details, see www.herts.police.uk/report/pip.htm or e-mail info@pippackinaction.co.uk

Writes Sally Gillen,
27 September 2007

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