What to do if you think someone is being abused? This information is for families or others who are concerned that a family member or someone they know might be being abused or is at risk of abuse.

What is meant by ‘abuse’?

Abuse can take place anywhere. Families are often particularly concerned when their family member is far away from home and they are unable to visit regularly.

Abuse means illegal, improper or harmful practice. It can take a number of different forms, including:

  • physical abuse
  • sexual abuse
  • psychological or emotional abuse
  • financial abuse
  • neglect of acts of omission are also forms of abuse.

The person who is responsible for the abuse is often well known to the person abused. They could be:

  • a paid carer or volunteer
  • a health worker, social care or other worker
  • a relative, friend or neighbour
  • an occasional visitor or someone who is providing a service
  • someone who deliberately exploits vulnerable people
  • someone who uses services (people who use services may intentionally or unintentionally abuse others and may require support to overcome abusive behaviour).

How can you tell if someone with a learning disability is being abused?

If you know someone well you may notice changes in their behaviour or appearance. These might be big or small changes, and might happen over a long period of time or suddenly.

Here are some changes that might mean someone is being abused. This is not a full list, but these are some of the things you can look out for:

  • they have physical injuries without explanation
  • they become withdrawn, tearful or anxious
  • they show signs of fear or talk about not feeling safe
  • they are hungry or dehydrated
  • they start self-harming
  • they start communicating differently or stop communicating altogether
  • their needs change, for example they need or ask for different types of care or different levels of care
  • their skills change, for example self-care or continence management skills
  • they behave differently or seem more or less happy and relaxed with different staff or in different environments e.g. at their day centre compared to their home.

It can be difficult to be sure that someone is being abused, but if you are concerned that abuse might be going on, we would always encourage you to raise your concerns.

What you should do if you think that someone with a learning disability is at risk of, or is, being abused

  • If at any point you believe your family member or someone you know is in immediate danger you should contact the police. (The emergency police number is 999, the non-emergency number is 101).
  • If there is no immediate danger, you should report your concerns about abuse to the local authority in which the person is living, immediately. Each local authority has an adult safeguarding team (sometimes called an adult protection team) – the details should be on your local authority website or you can call them and ask. You should contact the adult safeguarding team if you have any suspicion that someone is at risk of abuse.
  • If you do not receive a swift response from the safeguarding team letting you know whether or not they plan to investigate or you are not happy with the outcome, then you may wish to make a formal complaint to the local authority in which the person lives as soon as possible. You can also report your suspicions to the police.
  • If the matter is not resolved quickly and decisively by the service provider, the local authority and/ or the police, you could approach a community care solicitor who may be able to advise you about the best course of action and liaise with the relevant people on your behalf.
  • If  you are worried about raising an issue, you may be able to get support from your family member’s advocate (if they have one), a friend or an organisation that can provide practical and/ or emotional support – take them with you for support at meetings.
  • You can also consider reporting your concerns to the Care Quality Commission (CQC) who inspects health and social care services. The CQC tends to focus on the services as a whole, rather than individual complaints. You may want to register concerns with them so they take these into account when inspecting a service. You can contact them by letter, phone or on the CQC website.

Further information

If you want further information and advice regarding abuse, please contact the Learning Disability Helpline on 0808 808 1111 or helpline@mencap.org.uk.

If you are a member of staff working in the NHS or social care sector and you have concerns about abuse in your workplace, you can contact the Whistleblowing Helpline on 08000 724725 or enquiries@wbhelpline.org.uk or visit  the Whistleblowing Helpline website.

You may also find it useful to read Mencap, The Challenging Behaviour Foundation and Respond’s Meeting the Challenge guide: I am worried my family member is getting poor care or being abused, what can I do?.

How to get the support you need

Contact the Learning Disability Helpline for guidance and information about what support we can offer you.

Or why not take a look at FamilyHub? This is our online community for parents and family carers of people with a learning disability, and is a place for sharing experiences, advice and support.

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