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A lack of the right information surrounding the safeguarding of children with learning difficulties can leave social workers feeling inadequate and place such youngsters at risk of sexual exploitation.
The warning comes from a recent report entitled ‘Unprotected, overprotected’, commissioned by Comic Relief, that looks at how agencies can meet the needs of young people with learning difficulties who have experienced, or are at risk of experiencing, child sexual exploitation (CSE).
It revealed that some learning disabled children had been overlooked by social services and that social workers often lacked a clear understanding of the steps that should be taken to help protect them.
The report also found that many social workers were unable to recognise if a child had a learning disability. This is partly due to the fact that staff working in specialist disability services have not received adequate training.
“There appears to be a clear pattern across the UK of CSE professionals working with young people for whom there is no formal or informal identification of a learning disability or specific learning need”, the research said.
While young people with learning difficulties share the same vulnerabilities to CSE which are experienced by all young people, they are exposed to additional barriers.
Their social isolation and infantilisation both contribute to social workers failing to recognise that learning disabled children are at risk of CSE.
Because such young people find it difficult to understand the complexity of CSE, it is perceived by professionals that they do not have the same needs or desires to have a relationship as all young people.
The report continued: “The evidence also highlights the need for national investment to develop CSE resources and materials specifically tailored to support direct practice with young people with learning disabilities”.
Javed Khan, chief executive of Barnardo’s – one of the partners of the report – said that it is important for professionals to “get training to recognise the risks faced by children with learning disabilities and help them to stay safe”.
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