This is a guest blog from Matt Wall, National Secretary of the Community Chaplaincy Association, and Jane Dominey, a Research Associate at the Centre for Community, Gender and Social Justice, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge. Matt and Jane look at new research on community chaplaincy and the desistance process.
Matt: At Community Chaplaincy we’ve always known instinctively that building trust, believing in people and carrying a sense of hope for the future are all core to enabling change. When we discovered that academic research on desistance theory highlights the importance of these factors for supporting someone to stop reoffending, we wanted to get more involved.
In a nutshell, desistance theory supports a tailored approach to delivering support that is relationship based, built on people’s strengths and enables them to define themselves in positive ways by dropping the unhelpful labels they may have acquired. Clinks has produced a really helpful overview of desistance theory and how you can use it to inform your work.
Having raised some initial funding for this project, Cambridge University was commissioned to undertake a piece of research for us. Our aim was to increase the evidence base for the importance of holistic, person-centred support and also to have a very honest account of how we can do more to support the desistance journey. We hope that our findings will provide useful learning points for many in the wider sector.
In this blog we highlight the emerging trends as the research progresses through its first phase.
Jane: The challenge for the research is to identify the key factors in the approach taken by community chaplaincy and to show how these support individuals on the path to desistance. The project began with a scoping phase, gathering information from community chaplaincy service users, volunteers and workers from across the country. On my travels, I dropped in on a computer class and café in Manchester, had a cuppa with tenants of a shared house in Shrewsbury, attended a neighbourhood policing meeting in Solihull, met volunteer mentors in Rugby and resettlement workers in Leeds. I spoke on the phone with workers from the northeast to the southwest via London and Lincolnshire.
No two community chaplaincy organisations are the same. They vary in a number of ways including: size of the agency, financial strength, geographical reach, balance between paid and volunteer staff, prominence of faith as a key principle, relationship with the prison service, and relationship with the statutory sector (significantly the new probation agencies). Each local organisation has been shaped by the opportunities and possibilities of its unique context. Community chaplaincies are grounded in their local communities, but this diversity poses a challenge for the researcher!
The desistance process
Why might community chaplaincy support the desistance process? McNeill and colleagues, drawing on the existing research evidence, have identified a number of principles for desistance-focussed practice, and early findings from this research indicate a good fit between community chaplaincy and these principles. For example:
- Relationships are crucial - The service depends on the relationship that is built between the service users, staff members and volunteers. Research participants (staff, volunteers and service users) talk about the authenticity of the care and commitment inherent in community chaplaincy.
- A flexible approach - The relationships that exist in community chaplaincy are different from those that service users build with statutory agencies. They are still professional relationships in the sense that they have boundaries and limits, but they are not limited by the timescales, requirements and eligibility for services associated with statutory services.
- The importance of faith - The faith-base of community chaplaincy is most evident in the discussion of concepts such as hope and trust. Building trust and sustaining hope are argued (by staff and volunteers) to be possible in community chaplaincy, because the person-centred approach of the work does not lead to bureaucratic ‘tick box’ processes.
- Developing social capital - Staff and volunteers draw on their community links and networks to provide resources for service users. Examples include volunteering and job opportunities, leisure activities and the loan of a bike for getting to appointments.
- Enabling transition and supporting someone’s strengths - Some people move from a service user role to that of volunteer, peer mentor or paid worker. The community chaplaincy practice model allows this transition, recognising that individuals have strengths and potential
- Providing tailored support - Community chaplaincy staff and volunteers have a great deal of knowledge and experience about the obstacles that people face on leaving prison and they provide a tailored approach to supporting people with the practical issues they may encounter on release. The approach is argued to be highly individualised, flexible and personal, working with people in a holistic way.
The value of the research - a refocus
Matt: We look forward to learning more as the research develops about how we can be more effective in our work and align ourselves more closely with thinking on the desistance process. This initial research does however give all of us working in the sector a reminder of some of the factors that deep down we know are important but can all too often get squeezed out in the pressure for resources.
It shows us the importance of finding ways of going above and beyond the narrow contracting requirements that many of us face and is a prompt to stay true to our core purpose and avoid mission drift. Here are what I think are 3 of the key reminders for us all:
- Celebrate variety and uniqueness in your approach to delivering support – one size certainly doesn’t fit all and each individual needs to be at the heart of their own bespoke support plan
- Find time and space with people to build meaningful relationships as these are the catalysts for change
- Encourage people to discover their own strengths, to see their true worth and believe that a better future is possible.
The next phase of the study involves following a small cohort of service users from their release from custody through to the end of their contact with community chaplaincy. The aim is to move beyond taking a snapshot of practice and explore the process of relationship that is at the heart of the community chaplaincy theory of change. Findings from the report will be published in October 2017. If you have any thoughts, questions or comments about the research, please contact Matt Wall or Jane Dominey.