In November 2018, we launched our sixth State of the sector report which shows how voluntary organisations working in the criminal justice system are faring. This time we included a thematic focus on how voluntary organisations both identify and respond to the needs of people with protected characteristics. Protected characteristics are those identified in the Equality Act (2010) as needing protection from discrimination. They include age, disability, gender reassignment, sex, sexual orientation, race and religion.
This is our second blog designed to put our findings into perspective by giving you a more detailed account of the experience of an organisation delivering tailored services to people in the criminal justice system (CJS) who have protected characteristics.
We interviewed Caroline Hattersley, Director of Women@theWell, for our research. This blog will highlight how Women@theWell identify and respond to the gender-specific and intersectional needs of a diverse group of women and the challenges they are experiencing.
What services do you offer and how are they tailored for women?
We work with women that have been affected by prostitution or are at risk of it. Many of the women we see have experienced extreme trauma and childhood abuse and continue to be repeatedly subject to assault. Many are care leavers, street homeless or have insecure housing and have been coerced into prostitution and use drugs as a coping mechanism. They often get caught in the criminal justice system through things like anti-social behaviour, soliciting, non-payment of fines or as victims of violence.
Our Outreach Team meets women on the streets and in brothels across North and East London. At our Centre we provide a safe place for women to come on a daily basis and we work with them one-to-one to try and address and meet their needs. We have an Advocacy and Support Team who do the one-to-one casework including a lot of work around benefits, housing, psychological therapies and getting the women into various services that they are entitled to. Then we have a specialist Exiting Team who work to support women who are further along in their journey around needs like employment and managing tenancies. This team also has a specialist Independent Sexual Violence Adviser.
Many of our women come to us often having been excluded from every other service. So our core work is getting them back into mainstream services. That’s why we’re really committed to partnerships across the board. We’ve put a lot of work into forming relationships with statutory agencies and other partners so that we can help women to engage with statutory-based services. We’re helping services to better understand the needs of the women we work with and to be more flexible and accessible for them.
How does Women@theWell respond to meet the needs of women with additional protected characteristics?
A significant number of our women present with disabilities, either diagnosed or undiagnosed. We’ll work with local health services to get women the support they need. Perhaps that’s mobility equipment, or perhaps that’s a diagnosis, for example a learning disability or mental health diagnosis. We then help them to get the medication, treatment or support that they might need for that.
52% of the women who access our services are not British nationals and come from various black, Asian and minority ethnic groups. Some have a very insecure immigration status. We work with them around skillsets like learning to speak, read and write in English to maximise their chances of employment in this country because that’s one of the things that can help you can get status.
Where we aren’t qualified or don’t necessarily have the expertise to deal with certain issues we’ve formed partnerships with various voluntary sector agencies and other specialist organisations. For example we work with a qualified immigration partner to meet the immigration needs of foreign-national women in our service.
What challenges have you experienced?
Generating funding is an endless cycle that takes a substantial amount of time and energy. We don’t take any statutory contracts because at the moment the funding seems very focused on binary targets and outputs that we know doesn’t work for the women accessing our services. So we won’t take contracts that are setting either us or women up to fail.
Our work is becoming harder and harder. We do our absolute best for women. But it’s increasingly challenging to get women the basic rights that they need. That becomes even harder when you add in complexities around disability or challenges around immigration status.
We’re finding it’s taking longer to get women support and services. We used to be able to get women into emergency accommodation the same day they walked in. Now the criteria is changing and the availability is shrinking so we’re waiting three or four days before we’re able to make enough of a case for a woman to be housed. It also means we’re spending much more money. Three years ago, when I came into post, our emergency accommodation budget was about £300 a year. Last year in the space of three months we had to spend £2,000 on emergency accommodation. We can’t continue to sustain that kind of increase.
It’s not just accommodation. We’re seeing longer waiting lists around medical and substance misuse services. There’s been a massive reduction in gender-specific provision. For most of our women this is a huge issue. Their experiences and trauma mean mixed groups, for example around drug and alcohol support, just aren’t appropriate.
The voluntary sector collectively has an important role to play in meeting the needs of people with protected characteristics and in overcoming the barriers they face accessing services. As this case study exemplifies, voluntary sector organisations of different specialisms and sizes can come together to work collaboratively and support each other to improve services for those with protected characteristics. Clinks will continue to advocate for these and other vulnerable groups in the criminal justice system, and support and represent the voluntary sector to enable them to deliver the best possible services to them.