Incidences of Mate Crime, under which someone befriends a person with a learning disability to exploit them, are being examined in a pilot project launched in West Yorkshire. The results could pave the way for legislative changes if they confirm the fears of disabled rights activists, and those working with them, that the crime is on the increase. It comes at a time when the numbers of people with learning disabilities living independently are rising in the wake of direct payments to them.
David Grundy is the researcher from the national charity, the Association for Real Change [ARC], behind the project. He said: “It was a response to concerns amongst our members about cases where people were befriending people with learning disabilities in order to get them to buy them things, eat their groceries or to use their flats for parties. Going to the pub and only spending the disabled person’s money was also being raised as a concern.
Those being exploited could get angry when someone raised their concerns with them, as they often didn’t see what is happening as a crime. From my initial findings this appears to be the situation in the large majority of cases.” The project is based in Halifax and will run till 2011.
If the example of volunteer worker, Carol, is typical the problem of mate crime may well be a big one. Firstly, fearing she may be attacked for helping with this article she was unwilling to give her full name or location. Carol, who is registered disabled herself, has in the last six years worked with 16 people with a learning disability. This has included helping them with budgeting and says: “that every one of them has suffered from incidents of mate crime. A typical case is that of a young man who is regularly phoned late at night by friends asking him to cook them a meal at his flat using food he has purchased. In another situation an alcoholic woman befriended a man, and in order to maintain what he felt was a relationship with her, he would buy beer and drugs and even perform sex acts on other people for money. Neighbours got upset at his behaviour and he ended up losing his flat.
Getting people to recognise they are being exploited is difficult in itself, but when people do subsequently stand up for themselves they can and do face intimidation and violence.”
Which was the case with Denise from Hull who befriended by a woman, introduced to her by a social worker, was later put under pressure to support unfounded allegations against a local man. Visibly shaking on being asked to recall events Denise said: “it was frightening. When I told the police I hadn’t seen what was being alleged I was threatened with serious violence. This woman I also believe spent most of the £2,000 my mother left me in her will.”
Whilst most people with learning disabilities don’t ever have such large sums of cash the introduction of direct payments in 1998, followed four years later by local authorities being compelled to offer them, has substantially increased the numbers managing their own budgets.
Disabled activist and equality researcher Dr Pam Thomas does not believe this is necessarily a bad thing saying: “disabled people campaigned, and in some cases were arrested for doing so, for the right to have a choice and as much control as possible over their lives. That includes deciding how to spend the allowances they are entitled to. With direct payments having increased then mate crime is a growing concern, including situations where family members persuade a disabled person to employ them and don’t carry out any of the tasks they are expected to fulfil.
We can overcome the problems by re-establishing or improving Centres for Independent Living. [CIL] Each local authority is required to support these voluntary sector user led organisations to assist disabled people. Sadly, many haven’t allocated sufficient funds, and this has meant information is not being provided to give people a complete understanding of the problems they may face in managing their own budget. I look forward to seeing the ARC report as it will give us an idea of the levels of exploitation but we shouldn’t be waiting to act until it’s released in two years time.”
Carol believes it should be “culturally unacceptable for people with learning disabilities to be exploited by unscrupulous members of the community keen to access the relatively small sums of money they have. We don’t want to develop a situation where people don’t want to be friends with people with learning disabilities, but where people do exploit them then protection needs offering.”
In light of the fact that many of those being exploited don’t recognise what’s happening, and can act defensively when it’s pointed out, then will there be a need for additional legislation?
Thomas is not sure saying “stealing someone’s money is already a crime” whilst Grundy believes that the “legislation on hate crimes should already cover a situation whereby someone targets a person with a learning disability in order to take their money. This should be reflected in the sentencing in just the same way as when there is a racial element to a crime.”
Grundy says that one of the aims of the project will be to develop a toolkit of resources that organisations can use to protect people and that over the next couple of years there will training and awareness raising on mate crime.
The level of support he has received from many statutory and voluntary agencies has heartened him and he is confident that his final report will “give a good indication of how big a problem mate crime against people with learning disabilities is and consequently whether new approaches to tackle it will be needed.”