'Mate crime': Fake friend abuse that can end in murder

Man in distress Mate crime can range from forcing victims to pay for goods to torture and murder

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In recent years, a severely under-reported element of learning disability hate crime has been identified as so-called "mate crime". It can include physical abuse, torture and even murder.

Steven Hoskin had learning disabilities and endured months of abuse from people he believed to be his friends.

He was tortured and taken to a viaduct where he was forced to hang by his fingers from railings. His hands were then stamped on causing him to fall 100ft (30m) to his death in 2006.

Steven was a victim of what is now being called "mate crime", a type of hate crime where perpetrators befriend vulnerable people with learning disabilities and exploit them.

The scale of abuse is broad, and can include having food or taxis paid for to "cuckooing", when abusers use their victim's homes as their own.

Or, as in Steven's case, the abuse can be lethal.

'Tuesday friends'

An organisation was so worried about the instances of mate crime that it started a campaign to highlight the problem.

The Association for Real Change (ARC UK) launched its Safety Net campaign in 2009, running for three years.

Rod Landman, ARC UK regional development officer, says that financial abuse is typical of mate crime.

A couple of years ago he met a group of young people with Asperger's who talked about their "Tuesday friends".

"Tuesday is the day that their benefits get paid and so a particular group of people would turn up and help them to the cash point, help them to the pub and help them spend all their money.

"Then they don't see them again for another week," Mr Landman adds.

The organisation supports providers of services to people with a learning disability, but the funding for the Safety Net campaign has now come to an end.

ARC UK is concerned that, without a sustained national campaign, more vulnerable adults will be abused by people pretending to be their friends.

Identifying and tackling mate crime is complicated. Victims often do not understand what is happening to them or are too afraid to tell anyone.

ARC UK also points out that people with learning disabilities often find it hard to make friendships of any sort.

When it comes to abusive friendships, they can often feel "any friend is better than no friend at all".

Living in isolation

Mr Landman says that from his experience around 99.9% of learning disability mate crime goes unreported.

One of the key points of the Mental Capacity Act states "every adult has the right to make his or her own decisions and must be assumed to have capacity to make them unless it is proved otherwise".

Start Quote

Urban areas are getting increasingly good support whilst rural areas are falling into a black hole”

End Quote Stephen Brookes Disability Hate Crime Network

This includes bad decisions as well as good decisions.

Living in isolation can make people more vulnerable to these "fake friends" - it is believed that it goes on unnoticed more in rural areas.

Stephen Brookes from the Disability Hate Crime Network points to figures from Cumbria.

In 2011, there were only four reports of disability hate crime and one prosecution in the county, while there more than 900 prosecutions in all across England and Wales.

Mr Brookes says that in rural areas people do not know how to report these crimes and there is not enough support.

"There's a big gap in what to do next. Urban areas are getting increasingly good support whilst rural areas are falling into a black hole," he says.

While charities like Mencap campaign on more general hate crime, funding for work on mate crime at a national level has evaporated.

ARC UK is now calling for further funding specifically to tackle mate crime, with particular focus on fake friends on the internet.

Mr Landman's attention was recently brought to the case of a woman who was sending money to a person who had "befriended" her online.

"The only reason that the people who provide services for her found out about this was because she had gone on to start undressing for him in front of her webcam."

As social media takes off, the internet is becoming the new place for mate crime to be acted out.

When it comes to tackling this hidden form of abuse, Mr Landman believes we are only just scratching the surface.

You can listen again to the You & Yours episode covering mate crime here. Radio 4's consumer affairs programme is broadcast every weekday at at 12 noon (11:00 GMT).

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