It was euphemistically described as a “visitors’ plan”. In practice, it was an open invitation for numerous men to sexually exploit a young woman with severe learning disabilities. They took full advantage.
The proposal was said to have been made by a care company, Engage Support, and was approved this year by a court whose duty was to act in the best interests of the highly vulnerable 23-year-old woman.
She was autistic and in childhood had repeatedly gone missing from home to be subjected to rapes and “sexual violations” by men, “particularly Asian men”, in whom she developed an obsessive interest. “Socially inappropriate behaviour was seen every time she was with men. She would pout, flirt and if given the slightest positive response go over to that person and start touching them and talking to them in a sexually explicit way.”
For five years after she turned 18, care authorities and the courts sought to protect her from the extreme risks to which it was feared she would be exposed if given unescorted access to the community. Now, suddenly, it was open season.
To the family of the woman at the heart of the case, it seemed extraordinary that anyone should have decided that a young woman with an IQ of 52 might benefit from exposure to sex with a succession of men she barely knew. The Royal College of Psychiatrists said a person with that level of intelligence would be “severely intellectually impaired”.
The interim care plan that would trigger multiple sexual encounters in private and in public was approved in early June by Judge Jonathan Butler at a hearing of the Court of Protection in Manchester. On the same day, the court commissioned Christopher Ince, a psychiatrist with expertise in autism, to reassess whether the woman had “capacity to make a decision on whether or not a man with whom she may wish to have sex is safe”.
Dr Ince was also asked “whether he agrees with the proposals of [her] carers, Engage Support, to allow [her] to have unsupervised contact with unknown males both at home and in the community on the basis that [this] is in her best interests because it provides a learning opportunity despite the risk of her coming to harm”.
His report was damning. In Dr Ince’s opinion, the woman was unable to assess any risks posed by those who might want to have sex with her. There was no evidence that she would be able to learn from mistakes. The court-approved care plan was “inherently dangerous”.
“To expose an individual who lacks capacity in this area to such a high level of risk — that may lead to sexual abuse, violence or ultimately their injury or death — as a ‘learning experience’ is disproportionate, not in their best interests, open to substantial criticism and frankly unprofessional.”
Before Dr Ince’s report was presented to the court early last month, at least six “boyfriends” had visited the woman’s house for sex. She was “offering her telephone number to any number of Asian males that she comes into contact with when in the community”.
There were also sexual encounters in public. One evening in July, she left the house and later told carers that she “got into a parked car with an Asian male and had sex”. “The male left her in the car and she was then picked up by two males. She is reported to have given one of the men oral sex while the other stood outside the car. He said, ‘Do it to my friend and I will see how good you are, then you can do it to me.’ She then left the car and met another man who she had sex with.”
At a bowling alley a few days later, the woman “persuaded the man in the next aisle to engage in sexual activity with her at the back of the building, despite the fact that he was there with his wife and children”.
Manchester council has overall responsibility for the woman’s protection. Engage Support was paid by the local authority to care for her.
A small company with 22 employees, it specialises in services for “young people and adults with autism and associated learning disabilities”. Its owner is Paul Crowther, 49, who is also its director of health and social care. He represented the company at the recent court hearings.
In a submission to the court before the June hearing, Manchester council said that allowing the woman to have unsupervised contact with men would potentially expose her to violence, sexual harm, abuse and trafficking.
After learning in August of her numerous sexual encounters in the preceding weeks, the local authority said it instructed Engage Support to “refrain from taking [the woman] to places such as shisha bars where she would encounter Asian men who may pose a risk to her”.
In such bars, which originated in parts of Asia and Africa but are popular in the West among young people from minority ethnic communities, a sweetened form of tobacco is smoked from an ornate communal pipe known as a hookah.
Shortly after receiving the instruction from the council, Engage Support ended all the woman’s contact with men and early last month it said that it would “cease to provide support” for her. It had been concerned for some time about the safety of its staff, it said, and was no longer willing to put them in the position of “watching [her] have sexual relations”.
The woman’s “litigation friend”, an individual who represented her interests in court, said that the departure of Engage Support was regrettable. It was a “thoughtful and engaged provider”.
She is now in accommodation run by a different care organisation.
Under the terms of a new court order, issued by Judge Butler last month, areas or activities likely to have a “high presence of south Asian males” must be avoided until they have been risk-assessed. If sex in public seems likely, support staff must tell the man that he is “committing an exploitative act on a vulnerable female with a learning disability and autism”. Carers will then “support [her] to a place of safety”, using physical intervention if necessary.
The young woman is now safe from immediate harm, but a dilemma central to the case for the past five years remains unresolved. Her litigation friend said that those involved in her care have faced difficulties in “attempting to reconcile their responsibilities to safeguard her as the vulnerable adult she undoubtedly is, with their desire to promote her independence”.
An added paradox is a 2015 court ruling that she “has capacity to decide whether to engage in sexual relations but at the same time lacks capacity to decide as to contact with men”. How should that circle be squared? An autistic woman with severe learning difficulties has an obsessive sexual interest in south Asian men. She has a “substantial sexual appetite” but no understanding of “the risks she faces when pursuing sexual activity”.
The Court of Protection must determine her best interests. The recent handling of the case has proved so challenging that future proceedings have been transferred by Judge Butler to the High Court. No date for the next hearing has been fixed.
In a letter to the woman last month, the judge said he realised “that you think that what is happening to you is unfair. You want to make your own decisions and to be treated as an adult. You want your freedom.
“The puzzle (for everyone) is how you can have your freedom and be safe at the same time. This is what everyone wants, including me.”