While focus on abuse in residential care increased after the BBC’s Panorama exposure of Winterbourne View in 2011, there is scant attention given to the mistreatment of people with learning disabilities within intimate relationships. There is only one specialist refuge in the UK for women with learning disabilities who have suffered domestic violence and, until now, little research into this hidden problem.
Barbara Davis’s abusive boyfriend burned her fingers on the stove when he discovered her packed suitcase under the bed and realised she was trying to leave. He had controlled Davis, 36, who has a mild learning disability, for years. He isolated her from family and friends, verbally abusing her parents until they stopped visiting. He locked her in the privately rented London flat they shared, goading her to kill herself. She recalls: “He told me to strangle myself with a wire … he wanted me to die.”
Unaware of the existence of domestic violence support agencies or refuges, Davis (not her real name) eventually escaped with the help of family and is in supported living.
Davis’s story is typical of those uncovered by an unprecedented two-year research project by the University of Kent’s Tizard Centre that explores the experiences of former victims as well as the attitudes and practices of professionals who support such women.
Women with mild to moderate learning disabilities were interviewed for the research. They described physical, sexual, emotional, psychological and financial abuse. Researchers say some of the women’s experiences differed from those of their mainstream counterparts including “play-fighting” in which the perpetrator prepares their victim for later violence. Only four of the 15 interview subjects knew refuges existed.
The women said their partners did not have learning disabilities but did have physical or mental health issues, or a drug or alcohol dependency. Several had criminal records or were known to police.
Michelle McCarthy, who led the work and is a reader in learning disabilities at the Tizard Centre, says: “This is about coercive control and women not being free to live their own lives. These women have the least resources in terms of money and social or emotional support, so they’re going to be more vulnerable to domestic violence.”
She adds: “There’s play fighting and testing boundaries. The women have to go along with it or, as one said, they’re told ‘You’re a miserable cow’. The perpetrators have health problems and need care themselves, so the women find it difficult to leave.”
Campaigners’ efforts mean domestic violence has gradually risen up the political and public agenda – although a funding crisis means refuges are closing. The government, for example, is due to introduce a new offence of “coercive control” to address the fact that abuse is not just physical. However, there are concerns that the new law will not extend to carers, potentially allowing abusive male partners of disabled women to argue they are acting in the interests of their victim, therefore escape punishment.
Yet the Tizard research shows that most police officers do not believe that a learning disability makes women more vulnerable to domestic violence. Its attitudinal survey of police, health and social care workers from 17 police forces, 52 councils and 45 NHS trusts in England, Wales and Scotland found less than half of police officers felt women with learning disabilities were more at risk. This compares with 78% of health and social care staff. McCarthy says this is worrying given that the police are often the first point of contact in abuse cases.
Asked about learning disability training, one in five police officers said they had received “a lot” or “enough”. The research suggests professionals must be wary of diagnostic overshadowing, where problems such as a sudden loss of money or refusing support are attributed to someone’s learning disability, rather than considered as potential signs of abuse.
McCarthy believes domestic violence services must become more aware of learning disability while learning disability services must appreciate the risk for abuse within relationships. In addition, mainstream refuges should be more accessible to women with learning disabilities.
Beverley Lewis House, run by housing association East Thames Group, is the only specialist refuge for women with a learning disability. It has supported 180 women from across the UK for nearly 20 years. Councils pay an average weekly £975 per place, with referrals from across the UK. The service can accommodate 12 women and they stay an average of two years – about 18 months longer than at a mainstream refuge. The intensive support plan includes one-to-one counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy. Most women move on to supported living, some with a few hours of social care support a week after gaining new life skills and confidence.
Manager Asha Jama suggests the lack of focus on learning disability and domestic violence could be because women live with partners in “ordinary housing” and have mild support needs. This gives a false impression of their safety and resilience. “People [wrongly] think they’re safer [than in residential care],” she says. “The people we support have very quiet voices … It’s about looking at the person as a set of behaviours and acknowledging they have an emotional life with the same aspirations as everyone else.”
Following the research findings, the Tizard Centre has produced a video, Don’t put up with it, information leaflets for women suffering abuse, and guidance for police, health and social care professionals.
McCarthy says: “Women with learning disabilities are women first. Anything that other women are experiencing, they experience too; there’s nothing about having a learning disability that protects women from domestic violence.”……….’