A multi-agency conference aimed at tackling mate crime against people with learning disabilities is to be hosted in the region next week (Monday 22 January).
The #WhoRYa conference will see various agencies gather to help raise awareness of mate crime and explore how they can work together more effectively to tackle the issue.
People with learning disabilities are particularly vulnerable to mate crime - physical, mental or financial abuse, by those they believe are their friends.
The conference is being organised by South Tyneside Council and South Tyneside Safeguarding Adults Board in partnership with the University of Sunderland, South Tyneside Ability Football Club, charity Your Voice Counts, neighbouring authorities, Northumbria Police and the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner.
Councillor Moira Smith, Chair of the South Tyneside Community Safety Partnership, said: "It is vital that vulnerable people are given as much opportunity to live independent and healthy lives as any other member of society.
"Sadly, with more independence comes more risk, with people with learning disabilities particularly susceptible to incidents of mate crime. Perpetrators will usually take their money, abuse their property and betray their so-called friendship with victims usually unaware they are being exploited. Extreme examples of mate crime involving physical attack and far worse can be seen in the shocking deaths of Lee Irving, Jimmy Prout and Brent Martin from our region.
"We will be using this conference to get across a very strong message among agencies that we all need to work together to help protect the vulnerable members in our communities from this despicable crime and do what we can to stop this from happening in the future."
The conference is taking place at the University of Sunderland and marks ten years to the day since the convictions for the murder of Sunderland man Brent Martin.
Professionals attending the conference will reflect on the case of Brent Martin and that of Newcastle man Lee Irving as they hear from local and national speakers including expert Rod Landman from the Association for Real Change (ARC).
Rod Landman said "It is great to see South Tyneside Council taking the lead on helping to raise awareness of such an important issue. I am delighted to be able to lend my knowledge and experience on this under reported form of disability hate crime.
"The conference provides an excellent opportunity for all those professionals who work with people with learning disabilities to become better informed and discuss the actions that can be taken to help keep people who are at risk stay safe from abuse by people they think of as friends.
"People with learning disabilities can find it hard to make friendships and may feel that any friend is better than no friend even if that means an abusive relationship. Increasing isolation, springing from tightening eligibility criteria, also plays its part, and the growth of social media means that the internet is becoming a new place for mate crime. From real friends and relatives to professionals and the wider community, we all have a role to play in supporting people with disabilities keep themselves safe."
As well as hearing from key speakers, representatives from organisations will take part in workshops covering topics such as online abuse, modern day slavery and "cuckooing", where abusers use their victim's home as their own.
Two new films, developed by the University of Sunderland's final year media and film production students, will also be shown at the conference, where a new online resource will also be launched. It has been designed to help support potential victims of mate crime by providing advice about how vulnerable people can stay safe, particularly online.