Is it really so difficult to track down this rapist?

A view of Wembley Stadium (in the borough of Brent, London, where this incident took place), which has a large metal arch over it, as seen from Brent reservoir. A number of small boats are visible in the foreground.
Wembley Stadium, in the borough of Brent, London.

Earlier this week there was a story in the Daily Mail, among other places, about an autistic woman who contracted HIV while living in a care home in north-west London some time between 2006 and 2016. The woman, who is Black, in her 50s and a veteran of the long-stay hospital system, was diagnosed after she collapsed in 2016 and had to be admitted to hospital although she had been sick for some time. As with the woman in Arizona who gave birth this month after having been in a ‘vegetative’ state for decades since a drowning accident, it seems that the cause of her health problems was not considered because of her impairment. Police have told the family that it would be impossible to find the culprit as the length of time during which the rape could have happened is so long. A lot of people in the disability community are not convinced and believe that more effort would have been made to find the rapist had the victim not been disabled.

A friend who knows a thing or two about HIV told me this: that penetrative sex on just one occasion is not a reliable method of passing on the virus, which leads to the suspicion that the woman was raped more than once and therefore that the attacker was not there on just one occasion but was a regular staff member. It is also possible to identify different strains of HIV which would show whether the virus was the strain common in sub-Saharan Africa or in Europe and America. It is also no longer as common as it once was because anti-retroviral drugs make people less infectious; this means that few of the former staff members would be infected. Although it was confirmed that the infection was sexually transmitted, it is not clear whether the lady, given the pseudonym Cassie in the borough’s Safeguarding Adults Board report (PDF), had been tested for which strain of HIV she has.

In previous occasions, such as when there has been a rape or murder, everyone who could possibly be the perpetrator (e.g. every man) has been DNA tested and either one of them is matched to DNA found on the victim or the inquiry is narrowed to those who refuse or someone who flees the area. According to the victim’s mother, quoted in the report, police will not issue a reward because nobody in that line of work will speak against a colleague because they do not want to be seen as a ‘grass’; it is not clear whether the police have asked former staff members for tests and been refused or whether it is just their impression or assumption. The body of staff are also described as “a service”, as if this was the fire or ambulance service where there is a bond formed by being in adverse situations together, but it really is not; the providers are companies, the staff are simply employees; they come and go, and some of them may be friends outside work but many are not. I detect defeatism here.

The Safeguarding Adults Board’s response (PDF) tells us that Cassie is now living in a new home and “has settled well into her new living environment and she appears well and happy”. The board is also apparently satisfied that all the other residents of the former home (which is no longer used by Brent social services) “have been protected, with their healthcare and their support needs fully met”. Many parents and friends of autistic children and adults will think this is too good to be true, especially as the perpetrator’s identity is unknown and could still be working in the care industry with disabled people who, like Cassie, cannot tell people if they have been hurt. I know of other parents whose adult children had inappropriate encounters with both staff and other patients while in hospital or a care home. In one case, a young woman was surprised at night by a male resident coming into her room with nothing on, and was so distressed that she had to leave. The dignity of women residents and patients in particular is not adequately safeguarded and in some cases, particularly in the mental health sector, the affronts come from policy: open or supervised toileting and bathing as blanket policy, denial of underwear or sanitary protection (supposedly to prevent self-harm), for example.

Of course, finding someone who has HIV, or even the right strain of it, might not prove that this was the perpetrator. The perpetrator might not have known about their status or might have died in an unrelated incident. However, a DNA sample from them might also link them to other crimes as rapists often rape multiple victims. Whether he was employed directly by the company that ran the home or by an agency, there will (or should) be records of who worked there and when. It is not acceptable to just say “it could have happened at any time”. Many women, many Black people and many disabled people feel that their lives and their rights are regarded as being of no importance by the powers that be and when a Black, disabled woman is raped, most likely repeatedly, leaving her with a lifelong medical condition that needs ongoing treatment, and the police decide that it is too complex to even investigate, it’s inevitable that people will draw this conclusion.

Image source: Andrew Self, via Wikimedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International licence.

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