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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Child sexual exploitation by organised networks investigation report


D.4: Children with disabilities

50. Research commissioned by Barnardo’s in 2015 highlighted specific factors that increased the vulnerability of children with learning disabilities to sexual exploitation. These included overprotection, disempowerment and social isolation, and a lack of accessible sex and relationships education and information. There is also a reported lack of knowledge, understanding, awareness and training, specifically about the sexual exploitation of children with learning disabilities.[1]

51. Research funded by the Home Office in 2016 suggested that children with disabilities in all settings are at a high risk of sexual violence and that some factors, such as limited understanding of social cues and social interaction, can make young people more at risk of exploitation. Social isolation can also potentially make young people with disabilities more vulnerable to grooming and exploitation.[2]

52. Children who are deaf or have a physical disability are considered to be three times more likely in general to experience abuse than those without a disability.[3]

53. Perpetrators target children they identify as vulnerable, which can include vulnerability due to disabilities.[4]

54. In May 2021, The Times newspaper reported the experiences of ‘Sarah’, a teenager with learning disabilities. She was filmed being sexually exploited by a group of men, who could be heard laughing and taunting her. None of the abusers were charged with any criminal offences. One of her social workers said “If you wanted to look at a worst-case scenario for failing to tackle the abuse of a child, this is it. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong”.[5] Sarah’s experience is also reflected in the children’s case studies examined in this investigation, which showed the impact of child sexual exploitation on children with disabilities.

Recognising disabilities

55. Disabilities are often identified through SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) assessments, EHCP (education, health and care plans) and the Child and Adult Mental Health Services (CAMHS) pathway. Carefully worded forms or screening documents, guidance and training can assist practitioners in identifying whether sexually exploited children have a disability. Practice across the six areas in this respect was mixed but none had fully effective systems in place.

56. In County Durham, the child sexual exploitation assessment form included any “specific recognition around any disability or additional vulnerability” but this had only been the case since November 2019. Cases involving children with a disability could not therefore be tracked before that time.[6] Durham County Council has recently stated that disability is now included as a risk factor in its Child Exploitation Vulnerability Tracker (CEVT), which provides a point score around identified vulnerabilities including disabilities and allows for recording and monitoring of children at high risk of exploitation.[7] It has worked closely with SEND professionals to improve the knowledge of its child protection staff. The SEND and Inclusion Service reviewed 57 child exploitation cases triaged in the CEVT between March and June 2020. Of these, 43 percent had identified special educational needs or disabilities.[8] However, Durham County Council accepts that it is “fairly early days” in terms of its approach to children with disabilities and that there is still a “significant amount of work to do”.[9] While this attempt to better understand the needs of disabled children is to be welcomed, a specific focus on child sexual exploitation was missing and should be included in the future, including disabled children considered to be at medium or low risk of sexual exploitation who are not captured in the exploitation tracker.

57. While the City and County of Swansea Council’s (Swansea Council’s) Sexual Exploitation Risk Assessment Framework (SERAF) identified whether a child at risk of sexual exploitation has a disability, it did not prompt the assessor to consider the impact of disability on the child and any vulnerability to sexual abuse. The expectation was that disability would be discussed in strategy meetings.[10]

58. Warwickshire County Council uses the National Working Group (NWG) Child Sexual Exploitation Assessment Tool, which records whether a child has a disability or any additional emotional or learning needs. The practitioner is prompted to consider the need for a capacity assessment or an EHCP. It also records whether it is suspected that the child has an undiagnosed learning disability that may impact upon their behaviour.[11] The Council has developed its child sexual exploitation case record template so that it records and identifies any disability, including a learning disability.[12] Despite this, the Warwickshire Safeguarding Partnership raised concerns about the identification and recording of the needs of children with disabilities, noting that the proportion of children described as disabled being referred is lower than expected (compared with the prevalence of children with disabilities).[13] Warwickshire Police’s officers are able to obtain information on disability through children’s social care but this is not done routinely.[14] The force’s 2019 sexual exploitation profile document also “did not establish any clear links between CSE [child sexual exploitation] and people with disabilities”.[15] The processes used in Warwickshire form a foundation for effective identification of disabilities but the low rate of identification and recording is a concern.

59. The referral form (CE1) used by St Helens Council, which was in standard form under the Pan-Merseyside Protocol, asked if the child being referred has a disability, with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, but did not specifically require recording of the nature or effect of the impairment on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.[16] Its risk assessment form (CE2) included a prompt for recording whether the child has a disability and a section in relation to physical health concerns (including mental health) to allow for further identification and detail of the disability. However, St Helens Council accepted that there was limited scope to identify learning disabilities or needs, or for practitioners to record the effect of disabilities on the child. In addition, there was no guidance for staff on how to assess and record disability.[17]

60. In Tower Hamlets, the exploitation screening document referenced the need to consider disability as a potential vulnerability factor for young people. However, specific guidance was not provided to staff on assessing or recording disability for children at risk of sexual exploitation.[18] Training around exploitation, children who go missing and learning disabilities was said to be “poorly attended”.[19] Data on children with disabilities were not systematically captured prior to July 2019 and the introduction of a new screening tool.[20] Mr Richard Baldwin, Divisional Director for Children’s Social Care, noted that where children at risk of sexual exploitation have been identified as having a diagnosis of autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities, special educational needs and mental health conditions, this information was recorded on the child’s case file and partners were encouraged to share information. Any additional vulnerabilities were then discussed in strategy meetings, case conferences and strategic meetings, and additional support that may be required was discussed.[21]

61. In 2019, an audit was carried out by Bristol City Council of 12 case files involving children with disabilities who were at risk of sexual exploitation. It found some examples where the child’s needs and vulnerability associated with their disability were clearly analysed and proactively linked to their vulnerability to child sexual exploitation. However, the audit also identified that, for some children in complex family situations, the focus on sexual exploitation seemed to have been lost amidst other issues such as neglect and physical abuse. There were also examples of situations where a child’s disabilities had not been actively considered as a vulnerability factor. Risk management plans and safety plans had not been used consistently, the quality of assessments and sexual exploitation checklists varied and there were examples of cases where plans had not included goals and actions to address the sexual exploitation risk factors. As a result, Bristol City Council made a number of improvements.[22] Prompts for disability featured in the Bristol child sexual exploitation checklist.[23] The Council indicated that its policy was that children with disabilities who are victims of or at risk of sexual exploitation have a social worker from the Council’s Disabled Children Service allocated to them to act as a case coordinator.[24]

62. Across the six areas, there needs to be improvement in systems to increase the identification of sexual exploitation risk for children with disabilities.

63. It is important for institutions and agencies to have adequate staff training and guidance in place to identify whether a child who is experiencing or is at risk of exploitation has a disability. To ensure that appropriate support is provided, professionals have to work together across agencies, with health professionals and schools having an important contribution to protect children with disabilities. There also needs to be close collaboration between staff who are trained to work with children with disabilities and those with child sexual exploitation expertise.

Taking account of the needs of children with disabilities

64. Twelve of the children selected from the six case study areas were identified as having a disability. As disability was not a criterion for selection, this amounts to a significant proportion – more than one third – of all those cases reviewed.

65. In Durham, CS-A51 was diagnosed with autism and had particular communication needs. She was groomed and sexually exploited from the age of 15. She was well supported by an ERASE worker who used appropriate language and visual exercises to enable CS-A51 to begin to understand the impact of her disability on how she formed relationships.[25]

66. However, in other Durham cases reviewed in this investigation, there was no or limited evidence that the agencies took into account the child’s disability in assessing the risk of sexual exploitation that they faced or the harm they had already experienced. Although information was gathered about CS-A29’s disability in 2018, the impact of her disability was not considered in the risk assessment.[26] In her case, and in respect of CS-A118, professionals did not appear to recognise the symptoms of ADHD and the potential impact on their vulnerability to sexual exploitation.[27]

67. This theme was reflected in several of the other case study areas.

68. CS-A24 was a young girl from Swansea who was identified as being at risk of sexual exploitation after going missing a number of times. After one episode of going missing at the age of 14, she returned home under the influence of drugs. In mid-2018, CS-A24 had a formal diagnosis of ADHD and a conduct disorder. A 2018 risk assessment noted concern that CS-A24 “may continue to make unsafe decisions that place herself, her mum, her brother and sister and others at risk of harm”.[28] Ms Julie Thomas, Head of Children’s Services at Swansea Council, acknowledged that this language was inappropriate. She told us that children with ADHD demonstrate “very impulsive behaviours” and this was something they “would have considered” within the context of child sexual exploitation.[29] However, we saw no evidence that CS-A24’s ADHD was taken into account when professionals assessed her vulnerability to sexual exploitation.

69. CS-A25 was known to Swansea Council from the age of 12, following an allegation of domestic violence. At the age of 14, a risk assessment found her to be at high risk of sexual exploitation. CAMHS raised concerns that CS-A25 might be displaying neurodevelopmental disorder traits and that she potentially had autism. A strategy meeting was told that a referral from her school was considered to be required before this was investigated. Despite having subsequently been taken into care, we saw no evidence of further investigation of whether CS-A25 had a disability.[30]

70. CS-A300, who had a neurodevelopmental disorder, was groomed and sexually exploited by adult males in Warwickshire.[31] His disability was not recognised or recorded by the local authority, although a multi-agency meeting recorded his disability.[32]

71. CS-A27 was diagnosed as having moderate learning difficulties and ADHD. He was in the care of another local authority but was placed by that local authority in St Helens in a special education residential placement. At the age of 17, he was raped and sexually exploited by individuals and groups who established contact with him via Grindr.[33] A risk assessment by placement staff noted that he had “openly stated meeting unknown males for sex” and that he “has no concept about the danger he is placing himself in when meeting unknown males for sex”.[34] It is difficult to see how the sexual acts to which CS-A27 was subjected could be regarded as consensual. Mr Jim Leivers, Interim Director of Children’s Services for St Helens Council, accepted that CS-A27’s disability had not been taken into account in this regard and noted that he “was a victim”.[35]

72. CS-A71 also had ADHD.[36] St Helens Council again accepted that they had not taken account of this when undertaking assessment or planning for her.[37]

73. Overall, there appeared to be a lack of knowledge, understanding and awareness about the sexual exploitation of children with disabilities among some professionals in the case study areas. As identified in research, there has been a lack of training given to professionals (such as social workers and police officers) and failures by agencies to identify this kind of sexual exploitation, develop strategic preventative approaches to it, and gather and evaluate information about it.[38]

74. Local authorities, police and their relevant partners should take a proactive approach towards safeguarding children with disabilities. A multi-agency approach is required and should include input from health services and providers, who have an important role in assisting with the identification and support of children with disabilities. Whereas not every child with a disability who is at risk of or experiencing child sexual exploitation will require a specialist service, prompt referrals to specialist services should be made when required.

75. The inspectorates responsible for externally scrutinising the work of local authorities and health authorities have also indicated that children with special educational needs or disabilities who are at risk of child sexual exploitation do not routinely have their needs fully explored or assessed.[39]

76. Barnardo’s has acknowledged that its efforts to improve the identification of sexual exploitation amongst children with disabilities had not to date been successful. In an attempt to address this, Barnardo’s staff provided training to disability social work teams, special school staff and care home staff.[40]


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