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Steven Hoskin was 39 years old and had learning disabilities. He lived alone in St Austell, Cornwall. In July 2006 he was brutally tortured and murdered in St Austell by a group of people who he took to be his friends, who targeted him because of his learning disabilities. Steven was a victim of a phenomenon known as mate crime.
Steven Hoskin’s principal killer lived with him for a year before murdering him, and his Serious Case Review lists more than 40 missed opportunities for intervention by those who should have been safeguarding him.
Unfortunately, Steven Hoskin’s case, although extreme, is not an isolated one. Gemma Hayter died in 2010 after five “friends” forced her to drink urine from a beer can, beat her with a mop and then stripped her naked before leaving her to die on a disused railway embankment in Warwickshire. Unlike the Stephen Hoskin’s case, concerns were not raised.
Just this week (November 2022), the Daily Mail featured the case of Love Actually and Upstairs Downstairs star Meg Wynn Owen, who gave friend Brian Malam her power of attorney. The actress was then cruelly swindled of her £65,000 life savings by her friend, another victim of mate crime.
Accurate national statistics on the prevalence of mate crime are difficult to ascertain as the crime is categorised with other hate crimes, so unfortunately the figures do not give a clear picture of this specific crime. Safer Bristol Partnership and Bristol Safeguarding Adults Board carried out a Thematic Mate Crime Review for the Bristol area in 2018.
They cited regional research undertaken in Liverpool which found that:
- 80% of respondents to a survey of people with autism or their families speaking on their behalf had been bullied or taken advantage of by someone they considered a friend.
- 71% had been subject to name-calling and verbal abuse.
- 54% of 12- to 16-year-olds had had money or possessions stolen.
- Eight out of ten said that fear of bullying had caused them to turn down social opportunities.
What is Mate Crime?
There is no legal definition of mate crime. Mate crime happens when someone “makes friends” with a person, usually a vulnerable person, and goes on to abuse or exploit that relationship, sometimes with devastating results, as seen above.
The intention for starting the relationship, from the point of view of the perpetrator, is likely to be criminal. It is likely that the relationship has developed over a period of time, will be of some duration and, if unchecked, may lead to a pattern of repeat and worsening abuse.
Mate crime is a deliberately abusive act but it can be hard to identify, particularly if the vulnerable person is pleased to be receiving this new attention from their “friends”. It does not start with bullying but it can become bullying; it starts with people saying they are a “friend”, forming a usually emotionally dependent relationship and then beginning to perpetrate their crime.
The term mate crime can downplay the seriousness of the offence, which often can involve exploitation, abuse, assault, torture and even rape.
In many situations mate crime will be an example of disability or age hate crime, and is often categorised as such by victims’ families and social care staff to elicit a swifter and more effective response from the police. However, a mate crime is not always a hate crime; it will nevertheless always be a safeguarding issue, and should always be reported to the police so that they, together with the CPS, can make a decision on how to proceed.
What are the Type of Mate Crime?
There are different forms of mate crime, such as:
- Theft / financial abuse – the abuser might demand or ask to be lent money and then not pay it back or the perpetrator might misuse the property of the adult.
- Cuckooing – the abuser might take over the person’s home and visit or stay there, despite the person not wanting them to.
- Physical assault/abuse – the abuser might hurt or injure the adult.
- Harassment or emotional abuse – the abuser might manipulate, mislead and make the person feel worthless.
- Sexual assault/abuse – the abuser might harm or take advantage of the person sexually.
Often, these different types of abuse don’t happen in isolation, and abusers may subject their victims to multiple forms of abuse. Mate crime can also happen via social media, where victims are financially or sexually exploited after being befriended online.
There are also arguments amongst professionals about whether crimes of exploitation and abuse involving family members or care staff, etc. constitute mate crime.
What are the Signs of Mate Crime?
Mate crimes often happen in private and are not seen by others. It has been said that mate crime is an often “invisible hate crime”, and is unlikely to be disclosed by someone who is vulnerable.
Any of these indicators could suggest that someone is experiencing a mate crime or other form of abuse:
- Changes in routine, behaviour, appearance, finances or household, for example. New people visiting or staying over, lots of new “friends”, lots more noise or rubbish than there normally is.
- Unexplained injuries.
- Involvement in sexual acts which they have not agreed to.
- Loss of weight.
- Not taking care of themselves.
- Looking dirty or scruffy.
- Bills not being paid.
- Family members taking money from the victim without asking.
- A “friend” who does not respect, and bullies or undermines the person.
- A sudden lack of money, losing possessions or the changing of their Will.
- Never having phone credits as they regularly lend it to a “friend”.
- The person doing what they are told to by a “friend”.
- Expressing worry that they will lose their friends if they don’t do what their friends want.
- Appearing uneasy about certain friendships.
- Showing signs of mental ill health.
- Not being with the usual networks of friends/family or missing weekly activities.
- Cutting themselves off from established networks and support.
- Goods or packages arriving at the person’s home, and then being collected by someone else.
- The home is a mess after lots of parties.
- Secretive internet or mobile phone use.
- New online friends.
What is Involved in Mate Crime?
Mate crimes are likely to occur in private, for example in people’s own homes, rather than in a more public arena. It starts with people saying they are their target’s friend.
A typical mate crime might involve someone vulnerable, living on their own, who has a group of friends who take advantage of the person’s hospitality and generosity regularly and contribute nothing. Whilst this relationship may be genuinely one of friendship, it is still exploitative.
Some examples of mate crime might include:
- A woman being sexually exploited by a man who claims to be her boyfriend, asking her to sleep with his friends for money as they are short of cash.
- “So-called friends” routinely going to a victim’s house and clearing their cupboards of food and alcohol before leaving them to clear up the mess.
- A “so-called friend” calling on a victim only on benefit’s day to go to the pub and letting the victim buy all the drinks.
- Someone with learning disabilities may be asked to look after a package that contains drugs and being put at risk of violence or arrest.
- Someone with learning disabilities going shopping with their “so-called friends”, unaware that they are shoplifting, and being the person carrying the stolen goods, only to get caught by the police.
- A “so-called friend” assisting an elderly person with financial matters such as setting up online banking and then emptying the bank accounts.
- A vulnerable person is befriended and over time the “friend(s)” moves into the victim’s property and “cuckoos”, often carrying out criminal activities from the victim’s premises.
- “So-called friends” call a person names or belittle them each time they see the person, but always say they are “only joking”.
- “So-called friends” send abusive, rude or threatening emails or texts, or post these to social media such as Twitter, Facebook etc.
There are many other instances, and many of these occurrences may never be reported by victims and can be difficult to prove. There may even be positive pay-offs for the victim such as attention, excitement, companionship, “friendship”, etc., so the typical outcomes of a hate crime such as physical injury, distress and complaint may not be apparent.
Who is More Vulnerable to Mate Crime?
Anyone could be vulnerable to mate crime; however, people with mental health problems, substance misuse issues, older people, and those with disabilities, particularly those with learning disabilities, may be more vulnerable and are often the targets of this type of crime.
Those with Special Educational Needs or Disability (SEND) may not have had the usual opportunities to become “streetwise” when growing up, or may be less able to recognise that they are being taken advantage of by so-called “friends”, so are often the most vulnerable to mate crime.
Children can also be vulnerable to mate crimes, especially when befriended by older, often more streetwise children or teenagers.
Victims are usually people who are often living very isolated lives, are desperate for friendships, and such desperation is easily exploited. They may have distorted notions of what is normal and this makes it more likely that any offer of friendship will be accepted, thinking that it is better to have unkind friends than no friends at all.
How Can Mate Crime be Spotted?
Mate crime can be hard to recognise and often requires a multi-agency response. Some people may not even realise they are victims of mate crime and therefore may defend the relationship. It may take delicate negotiation to help a vulnerable person understand that their precious friendships may not be what they seem. For some people with learning disabilities, their desperation for acceptance and validation compounds the issue.
Rod Landman, Regional Officer and Project Lead for ARC England, published an account of mate crime from a care provider in south-west England, which demonstrates the difficulty of spotting this insidious crime. “They told me about a young woman with learning disabilities who used their service. She was an avid user of the internet and keen on Facebook. Here she met a man who unrolled a common romance scam. After a grooming period, he told her that he had fallen in love and if they got together they could get married, have kids, and the rest of their lives would be wonderful: ‘The only thing is, I’m a bit short on money right now, can you just send me £50…’. And so it went on with more requests for money. The service provider was unaware of this relationship until a member of staff entered the woman’s room one evening to find her undressing for her ‘fiancée’ in front of her webcam.”
While victims might consider reporting abuse by a stranger, they may be reluctant to report abusive behaviour from someone whose friendship they do not want to lose. The victim may be frightened to tell someone about it and feel isolated. They will need support and guidance to help them identify the difference between friend and foe.
Can Mate Crime Be Prevented?
The education of vulnerable people and their families and carers is a major way that the risk of mate crime can be reduced. Providing people in vulnerable groups with simple information can help to forewarn them of the risks; information such as:
- What a mate crime is.
- What makes a good friend.
- How to recognise a “fake” friend.
- What to do if someone behaves in a way they do not like and how to seek help.
- Recognising that a mate crime had taken place.
- The range of actions that they could take.
This information also needs to include appropriate sexual relationship advice.
With the increased use and accessibility of social media and the internet it is important that vulnerable children and adults, as well as those involved in supporting them, understand the risks involved and the steps that can be taken to stay safe, including:
- How information or images posted online may be used.
- How to use privacy settings.
- Accepting or rejecting “friend” requests.
- Staying safe when meeting up with people met online.
Sometimes the vulnerable adult will know that their “friend” is not really their “friend”, so providing them with information about who they can talk to about their concerns is very important in preventing the risk of mate crime.
Unfortunately, many victims of mate crime do not meet the criteria to access specialist social work, health or other services. There are, however, resources that can support vulnerable people or professionals to better understand mate crime and reduce the risk of it occurring.