Sal McKeown looks the steps that police and other organisations are taking to tackle disability hate crime
In October 2007 Fiona Pilkington killed herself and her 18-year-old daughter Francecca Hardwick by setting fire to their car. For the past decade she had been the victim of frequent harassment, vandalism and violence meted out by a local gang in Leicestershire. She made repeated complaints to the police – 33 times in 10 years – about the behaviour of the bullies who made life intolerable for her, her daughter and son. In that time, the police visited her home on just eight occasions. A jury at the inquest into the deaths ruled that police officers and council officials had failed to adequately share information.
Sadly, her experience is not unique. In Britain, one in five people with learning disabilities are attacked every week. In 2012, the Equality and Human Rights Commission produced a report on disability-related harassment titled Hidden in Plain Sight, based on research and evidence gathered from public bodies, individuals and disabled people’s organisations. One particularly shocking aspect of the report was how it described in great detail 10 specific cases in which a disabled person was either seriously injured or died.
Training the police
Ryan Doyle is an Inspector at Devon and Cornwall Police. He was part of a team that organised training for 350 officers in South Devon and all 400 control room staff across both Devon and Cornwall.
According to Doyle, “Devon and Cornwall is one of the safest places to live in the country – the general crime rate is very low. That said, we know we had a proportional amount of hate crime. In 2012 only nine cases were reported, and that was just not good enough.’
Their response was to put a raft of training in place covering the law, policy, procedures and ways of reporting. Most effective of all was the face-to-face training that was conducted by trainers who had learning disabilities or communication problems
One of those trainers was 34-year-old Scott Stack, who needs a communication aid when talking to others. He comments, “I think the police being taught by five adults who have learning disabilities really helped their learning of the topic. The police learned a lot from me – mainly about my communication, and that they need to talk to me, not to my carer.”
Doyle agrees that the course worked well. “We conducted a ‘mystery shopper’ experiment with control room staff. We organised phone calls before and after the training, and we could see very clearly an improvement in attitudes and communication skills. Before, they were impatient and not picking up on clues. Afterwards, we could see that when they heard phrases such as ‘my carer’ they realised that they had to take more care and dig a little deeper to get the full story.
Southdown Housing Association
Housing Associations are often on the front line, and therefore need to take necessary steps to ensure that problems are dealt with swiftly before they escalate.
As Michelle Saville, Team Manager at Southdown Housing Association in East Sussex, notes, “Harassment can be very frightening, especially if people do not feel safe and happy in their own homes. They can be so scared that they stop going out and become isolated from their family and friends.”
Victims often fear retaliation if they report an incident, and can consequently become lonely and depressed – which in turn will often have a knock-on effect on their physical health.
Sometimes people may not realise the effect their behaviour has on someone; if and when this happens, Housing Associations are well placed to mediate between parties. This may take the form of holding separate discussions with both sets of tenants, or bringing them together to talk about issues.
In more serious cases, they may have to work through an acceptable behaviour agreement with the aggressors, refer the aggressors to providers of anger management courses, involve the police, go potentially obtain an eviction notice through the courts. They can also access other agencies, such as mental health teams and Social Services. Other forms of practical assistance might include installing CCTV cameras, arranging visits from Meals on Wheels and helping to find a nursery places for children. As a last resort, they might be able to find some form of alternative housing that gives people the opportunity of making a fresh start.
Defining disability harassment
For the purposes of their inquiry, the Commission defined disability-related harassment as unwanted, exploitative or abusive conduct against disabled people that has the purpose or effect of either:
– violating the dignity, safety, security or autonomy of the person experiencing it, or
– creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading or offensive environment.
This also includes harassment against friends and family of disabled people and of people perceived to be disabled.
Case 1: The vulnerable adult
David Askew died of a heart attack in the rear garden of his home in March 2010. He collapsed minutes after local youths had reportedly thrown a wheelie bin around and tampered with his mother’s mobility scooter.
David was a 64-year-old man with learning disabilities who lived with his older brother and their mother in Hattersley. He had been subjected to harassment by at least 26 different people over a period of more than 12 years. Some of those involved in later incidents were the children of people thought to have been involved in earlier harassment. Incidents happened both at his home and in the nearby Kingston Arcade of shops and included verbal abuse, taking money and cigarettes off him and throwing stones at his windows.
Extract from Hidden in Plain Sight, p23
David’s case shows how non-criminal behaviour and ‘petty’ crime can quickly escalate into more extreme behaviour. Isolated incidents of harassment may initially seen as ‘minor’, and therefore often go unreported. If they are reported, there will be little sense of urgency when it comes to dealing with the problem.
Consequently, the perpetrators of such acts will feel relatively secure and increasingly compelled to ‘up the stakes’ in order to get the same sense of satisfaction, or experience a similar adrenalin rush. If the systems used by local authorities to log and deal with such incidents are inadequate, then there’s a greater likelihood that the incidents be seen as unrelated, rather than forming part of a broader pattern.
Case 2: Power and sex
In March 2002, a 30-year-old woman with learning disabilities was admitted to Borders General Hospital in Scotland with multiple injuries as a result of sustained physical and sexual assaults. The abuse had been carried out at home and was perpetrated by three men, one of whom was her carer.
The woman had made allegations against one of the perpetrators as a child but agencies decided her mother could protect her. When her mother died, he was allowed to become her carer, making her sleep on a carpet in the hall at his home. He began taking the woman’s benefit money, deprived her of food and liquid and made her sit in the dark for long periods. Together with two friends he forced her to strip, shaved her head, sexually assaulted her and repeatedly stamped on her face and body. They also threw the woman over a fence, handcuffed her to a door and set fire to her clothing.
Extract from Hidden in Plain Sight, p26
The striking thing about this case is that the woman became so isolated following her mother’s death that no one else noticed her plight. There seemed to be no system in place for checking up on the level of care she received – it was only when the severity of her injuries resulted in her being admitted to hospital that her story came to light.
Case 3: Mate crime
Brent Martin was beaten to death on the evening of 23 August 2007 by three young people who he had previously considered to be his friends. He was 23. Brent had learning difficulties and a mental health issue. He had been detained under the Mental Health Act from the age of 16 until May 2007.
Brent left hospital with between £2,000 and £3,000 of accumulated benefits money, of which he had total control. Having spent his young adulthood in an institution, Brent was desperate to make friends and used his money to socialise with a group of young men.
Extract from Hidden in Plain Sight, p49
‘Mate crime’ is a relatively new term. It is sometimes known as ‘cuckooing’, because the ‘mate’ in question will often move in to a disabled person’s home with the intention of taking their money, food, clothes, and in some cases, stealing prescribed drugs from them to sell on. It is often difficult to identify, as the victim concerned may be unwilling to speak out against someone they perceive as being a ‘friend’.
Facts and Figures
– People with learning difficulties have a 20% chance of being attacked every week
– 47% of people with learning difficulties do not feel safe either in their own homes, or when venturing out into the local area
– The crime reduction charity, Nacro, has found that people with disabilities are four times more likely to be violently attacked compared to non-disabled people.
– 76% of cases result in successful convictions (Source)