Society has made massive strides to help vulnerable adults to become integrated members of the community taking up roles in the workplace, entering mainstream education and being active within the areas in which they live.
But there is one significant area that they are still excluded from and that is access to fair justice.
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week (May 13 – 17) and a time to shine a light on the achievements that those with learning difficulties and who present challenging behaviour have made. Instead, the headlines are focussing on the increase in disability hate crime towards those most vulnerable in society and the fact that so many feel so let down by the criminal justice system and the law enforcement agencies that they don’t even bother to report it.
A recent report (Living in a Different World) into disability hate crime found that victims are being let down by the Police, Criminal Prosecution Services (CPS) and Probation Services. Further probing discovered that the main reasons were twofold. Firstly, there is a lot of confusion about what constitutes disability hate crime and there is embarrassment on the part of call handlers to ask if the victim was disabled in any way.
The joint study by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the National Probation Service argues that there is under-reporting of offences but acknowledges there is no "clear and uncomplicated definition" of what constitutes disability hate crime.
So what is a disability hate crime and in Mental Health Awareness Week wouldn’t now be a good time to define it once and for all, to clear up confusion for those tasked with protecting its victims and those most at risk in society
A disability hate crime is motivated by hatred or prejudice towards a disabled person, whether they actually have a disability or just a perceived one. It’s an attack on their identity and infringes their human rights. Sadly, research by Mencap in 2000 found that 90 per cent of all those who were disabled experienced some form of hate crime, many on a weekly basis.
Since 2000 more and more vulnerable adults have moved from sheltered accommodation into independent living forging successful lives at work, in education and in their communities.
Their achievements have been magnificent with health and social care providers like ubu who support around 500 vulnerable adults with pioneering unique support that has been praised as an example of best practice. We work with each individual to identify how they would like to live their lives. We set up programmes that will support them in working towards becoming as independent as they choose and live the kind of lives they want, safely.
It isn’t just those with learning difficulties and their families who benefit. Society is the winner because they make a very valid contribution to the communities in which they live and it is far more financially cost effective to have someone living an independent life in the community than being shut away in an institution.
But then there are increased incidences of verbal and physical disability hate crime which are going unreported because the victims don’t feel confident they will get justice or access to justice.
High profile cases in recent years have only increased this reticence because they often reinforce the belief that victims can make a formal complaint but it remains ignored or worse they are told there is no case to investigate or answer.
The tragedy of Fiona Pilkington, who killed her daughter, Francesca and herself after repeated abuse, demonstrates how tragic such cases are and they are not isolated incidences.
One young man from Tetbury Wells, Worcestershire reported being raped just four months before he was strangled. The 21 year old autistic man, Adrian Palmer suffered from Asperger’s and had repeatedly been bullied yet; the police and CPS refused to investigate and said: ‘He would not have made a credible victim because of his condition.’
The most disturbing fact about disability hate crime is that fact that so much goes unreported it is only a matter of time before there is another high profile tragedy that will once more shine up the inadequacies of the support services.
So what should be done before that happens?
Quite simply every report of a crime should be fully investigated whether or not victim is disabled. Key to successful convictions for disability hate crime is training for front line staff to understand what constitutes such a crime, and at the same time clear communication to those victims so they know what to report and when.
Secondly, there should be consistency across the system in dealing with victims and investigating disability hate crime.
The implementation and awareness that such is to happen will then lead to the third measure of increasing the number of disability hate crimes reported. It is only when victims feel sufficiently confident their complaints will be fully and robustly investigated will disability hate crime receive the resources it needs to slow down its occurrence and increase detection and successful prosecution rates.
It’s time to stop treating our vulnerable adults like second class citizens with access to second class justice. Mental Health Awareness Week is a good time to start.