Women with learning disabilities are at risk of becoming drawn into the criminal justice system due to failures to recognise their disability and a lack of appropriate support, according to a new report published by the Prison Reform Trust and KeyRing Living Support Networks.

The report, Out of the Shadows, draws on the experiences of 24 women with learning disabilities in contact with, or on the edges of, the criminal justice system; and practitioners working within criminal justice, social care, and women’s services. Abuse by men lay behind the offending behaviour of most of the participating women.

Unrecognised needs and missed opportunities

The majority of women reported difficulties in accessing support when they needed it most, despite being in contact with different professional services throughout their lives. Most reported that their needs had rarely been recognised or acted upon, and that opportunities to enquire about aspects of their lives had been missed.

One woman, quoted in the report, said, “I have always tried different routes of help but never really got anywhere.”

For most women participants, it wasn’t until they came into contact with criminal justice services that they began to get the help they needed. Referrals to women’s centres, through criminal justice, enabled women to access the help and support necessary for them to begin to take control of their lives. Having a key or support worker they could call their own was especially important.

Most importantly, the report gives a voice to women with learning disabilities, enabling them to talk about their experiences. This includes not understanding the implications of their behaviour and failure to comply with imposed sanctions; their histories as victims of violent and abusive behaviour; and enforced separation from their children, bewilderment and a sense of injustice.

The report outlines a number of recommendations which should, if implemented, help to ensure the needs of women with learning disabilities are recognised and met, enabling them to lead healthy and productive lives. As the Rt Hon Lord Keith Bradley says in the report’s Foreword: “Health, social care and justice services need to forge effective partnerships that ensure women…receive the right support at the right time.”

The report, Out of the Shadows, can be found at the Prison Reform Trust website.