The judgement relates to a man with learning difficulties who is described as “having a high sex drive”. A man who has in the past used sex workers and now lives in sheltered accommodation. His disability makes him vulnerable to exploitation and restricts his understanding of the risks but his wishes are clear and he would need help to fulfil them. Social work is about enabling, protecting the individuals rights and ensuring that “others” concerns for the risks should not over rule those rights. The local authority has a duty of care towards those they care for and might be open to prosecution if it facilitated a crime and paying for sex is a crime ( all be it one that society seems increasingly ambiguous about). So the Director of social services on behalf of the local authority decided that they would not help this man meet sex workers and would seek a judicial judgement to test this position. The judge found in favour of this approach.
I think the director and local authority bottled it. They side stepped a controversial decision and chose to put public opinion before social work values. The should have been fighting to extend the rights of people with a disability not seeking to restrict them.
What if the man had a physical disability not a learning disability. What if this person was perfectly capable of assessing the risks but made his wishes absolutely clear and required help to meet sex workers. Would social services be right in denying him that help?
I worked in a residential rehab unit with many young men. The aim was to give these students , that was the preferred term, the skills and confidence to live independently. Many were wheel chair users as a result of road traffic accident like motor bike crashes others had profound disabilities they were born with, all wanted to live independently whilst recognising they would need practical physical care. There interests were music, football, computer games and girls. There opportunities for socialising with the opposite sex were limited. They were not fit looking wheel chair basketball players with the well developed upper bodies that we see in the Paralympics, these guys had chunky electric wheel chairs and not enough upper body strength to get in and out of bed or on and off the toilet with out help. They did however have a health sex drive.
David the head of rehab would regularly remind us residential care staff and social workers of the philosophy of this social service unit by telling us we were the, “hands and legs of students”. Our role was to enable not to decide and certainly not to make moral judgements. Students had choice and the right to take risks and that was a very important part of retaining their dignity and exercising independence.
I know what he would have thought of this judgement.
Blair Mcpherson ex social worker and former director www.blairmcpherson.co.uk