An earlier evaluation of the New Zealand child protection program ‘Keeping Ourselves Safe’ found, inter alia, that girls with learning problems were highly vulnerable to drugs, sexual abuse and violence (Briggs & Hawkins 1996a). This led to the present study, the aim of which was to focus specifically on children with learning disabilities, and to include data from boys as well as girls.
Quantitative and qualitative data were collected from one hundred and sixteen students aged 11–17 years (61 females and 55 males) who were interviewed in special education units. Their common characteristics were that they had all been assessed as being 3 years or more behind their chronological age group in their development and achievement, they needed individually planned curricula across the range of school subjects, and they had all previously attended mainstream schools throughout the North and South Islands of New Zealand.
The study confirmed the vulnerability of children with learning disabilities to the risks of drugs, violence, psychological bullying, pornography and sexual abuse. Significant levels of violence in both schools and the home were found. The study also showed the need for special attention for the protection of boys.
It is possible that children with learning disabilities were targeted because they were seen as safer targets in terms of an expectation that they would be less aware of the difference between right and wrong and less likely than other children to make a report about any abusive behaviour. If this speculative hypothesis is correct, it means that children with learning disabilities require even more vigilant forms of protection than other children.