Agencies from across the North East joined forces this week to increase their understanding of mate crime against people with learning disabilities.
Around 180 delegates descended on the University of Sunderland for the #WhoRYa Mate Crime Conference - the first of its kind to be held in the region. The conference was organised by South Tyneside Council and its partners to help raise awareness and explore how agencies can work together more effectively to tackle mate crime.
Mate crime is a term used to describe physical, mental or financial abuse of people with learning disabilities by those they believe are their friends. People with learning disabilities are particularly vulnerable.
Welcoming delegates, Councillor Moira Smith, Chair of the South Tyneside Community Safety Partnership, said: "People with learning disabilities may already struggle with some of the complexities of daily life. They should never have to worry that so-called friends may go on to exploit their apparent friendship.
"Treating someone badly because of their disability is disgraceful in itself. But when they pretend to be their friend and subject them to financial, mental or physical abuse, it is appalling. Mate crime can have a devastating impact on victims, their families and the wider community.
"This conference gave us an opportunity to increase understanding of this very worrying practice and the feedback we have already received is extremely positive. This has reinforced the need for all of us to do everything we can to help protect those who may be vulnerable to mate crime."
The conference was held on the tenth anniversary of the murder convictions in the case of Sunderland man Brent Martin. Professionals reflected on the case of Brent Martin and on the more recent murder of Newcastle man Lee Irving as they heard from national and local speakers including Rod Landman from the Association for Real Change (ARC), Newcastle MP Catherine McKinnell and Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner Vera Baird QC.
Rod Landman, of ARC, added: "The conference was the most successful event I have attended in ten years working in mate crime. It highlighted not only the shocking and brutal murders of people with learning disabilities, but also the everyday abuse and exploitation faced by tens of thousands of people at the hands of their so-called friends.
"Despite the appalling nature of the crimes being discussed, the conference offered a positive way forward, highlighting the need of local services to work in partnership to better protect people, and the vital contribution of us all in our daily lives. The only cure for bad friends is good friends. We are all neighbours, colleagues or relatives of someone with a learning disability, and it is up to all of us to be the difference."
Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner Dame Vera Baird QC said: "No one should have to live in fear that people who pretend to be their friends will steal from them, assault them or encourage them to commit crimes on their behalf. I will do my upmost to crack down upon so-called 'mate crime'.
"It's essential that victims have somewhere to go to turn to for help - and I'm pleased to say that Northumbria is ranked one of the best forces in the country for hate crime victim satisfaction. Those who believe they may be a victim of this kind of abuse, please don't hesitate to report it to police or contact Victims First Northumbria on 0800 011 3116."
During the conference, delegates were given an overview of a new online resource www.whorya.co.uk, developed by the University of Sunderland's final year media and film production students. The website is designed to help support potential victims of mate crime by providing advice about how vulnerable people can stay safe, particularly online.
Two new documentaries, also produced by the students, were screened at the conference. The hard-hitting A Tale of Two Cities reflects on the cases of Brent Martin and Lee Irving, while #WhoRYa gives an insight into how the wider project came about. The latter also includes some of the region's professional footballers, including John O'Shea, Jonathan Woodgate and Julio Arca lending their support to the project.
Sue Perryman, Senior Lecturer in Media Production at the University of Sunderland, said: "Our media students were delighted to be involved in this project and worked incredibly hard to ensure they delivered a professional resource with impact, designed to shine a spotlight on this extremely important issue.
"The collaboration also provided a great opportunity for our students to apply the skills they're learning on their course into a live project that has real-world impact, and we are rightly proud that their achievements were showcased before an audience of such high profile delegates."
The conference was 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 Smith added: "It is important to note that most friends are genuine friends. All of them may be. Through the #WhoRYa campaign we aim to support those with disabilities to enjoy good positive relationships while helping to raise awareness of the issue of mate crime among real friends, families, carers, professionals and the wider community."
For further information about the #WhoRYa mate crime campaign visit www.whorya.co.uk