Friendship is an important part of life for most people, and brings a sense of shared interests, connectedness and trust.
Sadly, there are some people who will use friendship to take advantage of others for their own personal gain.
Mate crime happens when a person is ‘befriended’ by someone who goes on to abuse or exploit that friendship. Most recently the shocking US crime involving a mentally disabled young man who was tied up for five hours and horrifically assaulted by a group led by his school 'friend' while being broadcasted on Facebook Live is an extreme example of such abuse of friendship and trust.
It is also widely unreported and happens more often than we realise, particularly to people with an intellectual disability. Indeed some figures suggest that 80% of young people with a disability felt they had been bullied or taken advantage of by someone they considered a friend.
Some people with an intellectual disability may have a trusting nature, not realising they are being taken advantage of and believing the person to be a real friend.
Mate crime is not just ‘mucking about’ or ‘a bit of harmless fun’. It often involves serious offences, and can take many forms, such as:
1. Financial Abuse – manipulating the person with a disability to ‘shout’ for the cost of things, lend money, or sign loans and legal contracts
2. Physical Abuse - exerting force to control the individual
3. Emotional Abuse - manipulating or misleading a person, or making them feel worthless, in order to control them
4. Sexual Abuse – coercing the person into sexual activity, prostitution or some form of sexual exploitation
5. Criminal exploitation - coercing or grooming the person to commit criminal offences.
Many of these instances can be extremely abusive. Rod Landman from ARC, who raise awareness of mate crime, says that financial abuse is typical of mate crime and talks about a group of young people with Asperger’s he met who referred to 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,” he explained.
Often people are manipulated into paying for petrol, phone credits, clothes, food or cigarettes. Some people can even be encouraged to take loans out or change their wills.
Worse, it can be for sex.
In a 2007 case involving juveniles, a 17 year old girl with a developmental delay was invited to meet two young men that she knew at a train station. She was met by 11 youths, friends of the original two, who coerced her into sexual activity, urinated on her, taunted her, made terrifying threats, set her hair on fire and worse. This was all filmed by the ringleader and the footage was later sold to teenagers across the region for $5 each. Seven of the offenders were eventually convicted for this horrific crime.
These are shocking and extreme examples, but they highlight the fact that the perpetrators of these mate crimes were falsely perceived by the person with a disability to be a close friend: someone who had their best interests at heart and cared for them.
So, how can we stop mate crime? It’s important to reiterate at the outset that most people are genuine friends, and not to create a sense of unnecessary fear about people in lives of any person with a disability.
However, there are three keys ways to prevent mate crime:
Firstly, friends and family can help spot mate crime. Mate crime is often covert but the following could be signs that something is wrong:
- If the individual suddenly has a new friend or a much larger friendship group, and a more active social life with the new people having a big influence on them.
- If the person comments that their friend/s will be angry or disappointed if something doesn’t happen e.g. going to the pub. Anxiety about losing the friendship and agitation over their friend’s displeasure can signal a manipulative or controlling relationship.
- If the individual is paying for everything in a friendship or relationship, such as movie tickets, round of drinks at the pub, taxi fares, or even doing something as drastic as changing their will. Are bills going unpaid suddenly?
- Observe other outward changes. Has the person with a disability changed their routine, behaviour or appearance? Do they have unexplained injuries? Have they let themselves go, stopped bathing or are they showing other signs of mental ill health? Have they lost a significant amount of weight? Are the isolating themselves and withdrawing from their other social networks?
- Use of threats to control victims: threats are a common feature of hate crimes across the board, but seem to play a particularly strong role in cases of mate crime, where the perpetrators want to control the victim.
- Accusations of sexual misconduct: accusations of a sexual nature are a very common feature of mate crime and are often used by perpetrators to justify an escalation in violence.
- Fear of reporting: when victims do recognise that something is wrong, they may be too afraid to report it.
- If you detect any of the above signs, you may want to use our Easy Read Guide to preventing mate crime (below) to discuss this with the person you care for.
Secondly, we must equip people with an intellectual disability as much as possible, to detect the difference between genuine friendship and those who are out to manipulate or abuse them. It’s especially important to spend time developing these skills so people are enabled to recognise the kinds of behaviours they should not accept from others.
Thirdly, any reports of mate crime should be taken seriously and properly investigated. The covert, controlling and escalating nature of these crimes means that any reports must be acted on immediately to prevent more serious abuse occurring.
We have produced an Easy Read Guide for people with an intellectual disability that’s designed to prevent mate crime. Download the guide here and use it to help you have a conversation with the person you care for about the nature of true friendship and about mate abuse.