Updated: Wednesday, 13th December 2017 @ 12:51pm

'They think these people are their friends': Manchester puts spotlight on 'mate crime'

'They think these people are their friends': Manchester puts spotlight on 'mate crime'

| By Frankie Tobi

"Unfortunately the 'nature of the beast' seems to be that many of us – me included – are all too often very poor at managing relationships of all kinds. We often find ourselves being taken advantage of."

Peter Baimbridge, 60, was diagnosed with autism just four years ago, but described very clearly a situation being frequently referred to as mate crime.

Coming under the hate crime umbrella, mate crime refers to someone deliberately befriending a vulnerable person in order to take advantage of them.

These crimes can vary from petty theft to financial abuse, manipulation and, at its worst, sexual exploitation.

In his work for SalfordAutistm, Peter has come across cases of crimes like these on countless occasions.

"It sometimes happens maliciously by evil people, sometimes inadvertently by nice people who find it hard to stop us giving more than we should without hurting us,” he told MM.

"There is also the problem that some of us see abuse where there is none, so the signals get confusing to learn from."

Those on the autistic spectrum are particularly vulnerable to mate crime.

While understandable that anyone would be hesitant to second guess the motives of a friend, crimes of this sort are rife amongst autistic youths and adults, as they play right into their misinterpretation of other people's behaviour and motivations.

It is for this reason, these crimes are thought to be vastly underreported.

In a study carried out by the National Autistic Society in 2014, of the 1,344 autistic adults, and parents and carers responding on their behalf, 49% said they had been abused by someone they thought of as a friend.

A further 37% believed a friend had forced or manipulated them into doing something they did not want to, and 27% have had money or possessions stolen by a friend.

In a more recent report from the Wirral Autistic Society, a staggering 80% of respondents over the age of 16 believed they had been bullied or taken advantage of by a friend and a third of adults said that they had been subject to bullying or manipulation of a sexual nature.

As uncomfortably high as these statistics appear, reporting the matter to the police is often a wholly separate issue.

In part, this is due to the crimes frequently being small enough to go unnoticed. As well as this, it is often unsettling to report a 'friend'.

There are currently no statistics for Manchester, as of yet.

"It's not so much that we're not aware of the problem," Peter said.

"But we can't process it to the point where we can make any conclusion about it, and therefore decide on any action.

"We're left in this situation with something going on that we're extremely uncomfortable about, but we can't make any decisions about it.

"It's hard to put it into words for someone who has not experienced it. It's like being ill but not really knowing what's wrong with you."

A Freedom of Information request revealed that the total number of hate crimes and incidents made against people with learning disabilities in Manchester rose from 17 in 2013, to 37 in 2014.

This figure was 36 for the year until 15 December, and the final figure is expected to be substantially higher.

As the relationships between wrongdoer and victim are not recorded, statistics showing the number of mate crimes taking place are hard to pinpoint.

Mari Saeki, Project Officer for the Family Services Development Project, funded by the Manchester Autism Consortium, describes mate crime incidents as something she is increasingly seeing.

"A core part of autism is that they don't recognise that perhaps the way they are communicating with others might be giving off a certain vulnerability, or they're not very good at recognising other people's intentions," Mari said.

"It might start off incrementally and relatively harmless, and then become more serious as time goes on.

"For an autistic person, that goes to the core of their impairment, that they can't recognise people's intentions.

"And often, they may have been without that friendship group before and so they're gaining a lot in the short term."

There are many guises that these exploitative friendships can take.

For children and teenagers, it often takes the form of petty theft, whereby an autistic teenager at school might find themselves constantly being the one who buys alcohol, or being asked to give away personal items of value to their friends, such as jewellery or mobile phones.

Naturally, these situations can easily be rationalised, and are often so minor, taking the trouble to report them seems unnecessary.

But Mari believes that a lot of the grooming behind these friendships happens online, and for autistic children, this can be both a blessing and a curse.

"Things like social media have added to the vulnerability as there are forums where parents don't necessarily have sight of where they might be being groomed for stuff," she explained.

"Someone seems interested in them and there is a potential friendship there, and then very quickly from the outside we can see why it's a thoroughly exploitative interest.

“But for that person, they might be feeling 'no, no, I know this person’.

"It is fraught, but having said that, I am not one of those people who think social media is the root of all our evils.

"I think actually, the flipside is a lot of people are getting social contact they wouldn't have had otherwise and lots of it is really positive.

"You go to the heart of the difficulty with autism, which is often the lack of insight, and there's no quick solution to that."

For the many support groups for parents of autistic children, crimes of these sorts are a big concern.

Sandra Moors from Salford's 10-year-old daughter Ellie suffers from ADHD, and she believes is on the autistic spectrum.

While Ellie is young now, Sandra is aware of the hurdles she will face down the line as her daughter goes to high school, believing girls to be particularly keen to hold onto friendships, whatever the cost.

"This is something I worry about particularly with Ellie,” she said.

“She is very easily manipulated and eager to please and takes people at face value."

Another parent, Graham Heywood runs the Bolton Adult Support group, a group of around 60 parents of adult children with autism.

His 45-year old son, Julian, has both OCD and autism, and although independent from his parents, lives close by and is still given a lot of support.

Julian experienced a similar one-way friendship not long ago.

"He had no money when they turned up and yet they were going out for coffee or to a bar or a meal, and it was clearly taking advantage of my son,” Graham explained.

"And each time my son met with his friend he was expecting some repayment because it was supposedly, 'I'll give it to you next time I see you', that sort of thing.

"Eventually my son said 'well, you don't pay your way', quite innocently, but expecting a contribution.

"I know for a fact that this person had the means to pay his way if he so wanted, but he chose not to."

Graham is aware of numerous incidents from within the parents group where such manipulation has been identified, but recognises the difficultly in understanding these incidents as crimes.

"I don't think [my son] would have categorised it as mate crime,” he said.

“He wouldn't have categorised it as a crime probably at all, but it is something that he felt wasn't acceptable because he was getting fed up with it.

"I know that probably three other people have mentioned it, and one particular mother – who didn't want to talk about it in the presence of her son – but I am aware that several hundred pounds went astray as a result of this person who was supposed to be a friend of her son.

"I don't think he ever got the money back."

Disturbingly, this story chimes in with an incident Peter from SalfordAutism describes, where a mother went to court in order to lock her son's bank account, after discovering he was £5,000 in debt.

"He was going to the pub and none of his mates ever remembered their wallet,” he said.

"He just thought it was part of having mates, and hadn't put two and two together, or calculated the actual cost.”

Greater Manchester Police are aware of mate crime, and in partnership with the CPS held a regional disability hate crime event last year, as well as a disability hate crime seminar for care providers.

It is perhaps unsurprising that those in care are another group vulnerable to this sort of crime.

In spite of increased reports however, GMP believes that the growth follows a national rise in the reporting of all hate crimes, and consider this largely down to more victims coming forward, rather than more incidents taking place.

But what can be done to tackle a problem that, as Peter describes it is 'the nature of the beast'?

And as vulnerable as those with autism can be to exploitative relationships, there is the added stress for many that the majority of these incidents are petty and therefore inconsequential.

Sandra believes that the only way to protect children, and adults, from these sorts of exploitations is to spread awareness of them from school age.

“Awareness is great for our kids and our lives,” she said.

“Sometimes we can feel it's only happening to them and us but we are really not alone."

Mari agreed with this statement, saying that it was important that mate crime was given more publicity.

"We've been doing a lot of work preparing adults with autism for the world of adulthood,” she said.

“This is something that has kept coming back on our radar as something that we don't talk about enough, and we don't prepare people enough generally for.”

Mari, however, is adamant that any increase in reports will still not reflect how widespread the problem truly is.

“I think a lot of people don't want to face the possibility of quite how prevalent this is, because it is a pretty unpalatable concept,” she said.

“It's the fact that these vulnerable people think that these people are their friends, and therefore are handing over information, money, sexual favours etc, in a way that they wouldn't do.

“We just don't like to face up to how much of this unfortunately is happening, but we have a group of people here who don't have the ability to negotiate and understand that, so we have to speak on their behalf and identify it and call it out.

“It's not even a straightforward comparison to grooming, where an older man is grooming a younger person, it's not even like that. These are peers.

“They are people that they've often been to school with or live near. They think that they are their equals. That's what is so devastating about it.”

Image courtesy of CHI & Partners, via Flickr, with thanks