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Sexual violence

Dr Alison Jobe from our Department of Sociology and Dr Helen Williams of Sunderland University share insights from their upcoming research on women with learning disabilities/autism reporting sexual violence.

Sexual offence cases are characterized by high levels of attrition and a poor conviction rate. Research has shown that women with learning disabilities and/or or autism are much less likely to see their case progress through the criminal justice system despite being more at risk of sexual violence. We worked in partnership with Rape Crisis Tyneside and Northumberland and Northumbria Police to explore the reasons for this justice gap and what could be done to address it.  We interviewed women with learning disabilities/autism who had reported sexual violence, police officers, social workers, healthcare workers and support practitioners to find out about their experiences. 

We found that women with learning disabilities/autism were disadvantaged in multiple ways when they reported sexual violence. Firstly, disability or additional communication needs were often unrecognized and police relied upon victims/survivors to disclose any disability during an interview. Sometimes this disclosure served to undermine the credibility of the victim before any evidence had been gathered because people with learning disabilities/autism were assumed to be unreliable witnesses.

When a learning disability/autism was disclosed, police did not always understand how this might affect a person’s communication.  We found several communication characteristics associated with learning disabilities/autism that affected police perceptions of victim credibility.  While a police interview following a traumatic event can be challenging for anyone, people with learning disabilities/autism often found the interview environment (noise, light etc) and the phrasing of questions particularly difficult, which could lead to poor-quality evidence. 

To mitigate these issues, intermediaries are available as a special measure. Intermediaries are speech and language professionals and are available to facilitate communication between police and vulnerable victims. Everyone we spoke to agreed that intermediaries were helpful when they were used but they were not always involved when they needed to be due to availability and the misconceptions of officers about their role and cost. Getting access to the relevant special measures and support systems was crucial for victims to give their best evidence, but criminal justice agencies were not always well informed of what was needed and why.

Experiences of reporting to the police were often framed negatively by the women with learning disabilities or autism that we spoke to. They were upset when there were no charges brought and worried that perpetrators would target someone else. None of the participants were asked what they wanted the outcome to be and they had little say in the process. We think this needs to change.

There needs to be additional training for police and criminal justice practitioners who work with people with learning disabilities or autism. There needs to be a cohesive multi-agency approach in which expertise can be shared and best practice highlighted. Work needs to be done to make the experience of reporting sexual violence more accessible for everyone. Most importantly, police and criminal justice agencies need to work with people with learning disabilities/autism themselves to find out how best to improve access to justice and improve reporting experiences. Based on our research, a film and training package have been co-developed using participatory methods with Open Clasp Theatre Company, and Us Too- experts by experience, who are supported by ARC England (Association for Real Change). The theatre-based training will be piloted with Durham police force in 2023 and will be supported by Sally Adams- Learning Disability Independent Sexual Violence Advisor at RSACC.

Our pilot research is available here – 

*This blog has been republished from RSACC. Read the original blog here.