This is a guest blog by Rebecca Gomm, who is working on a project exploring the perspective of women offenders in relation to interventions and approaches which support their desistance from offending. This has involved service user engagement with women offenders who have accessed probation, prison and voluntary sector provision in the past.
This blog is the first of two blogs that will explore the main findings from my research, which started as an exploration of what desistance “means” to women who have offended in the past. Subsequently, the work has developed into building resilience, for supporting recovery in women offenders. As an introduction to the findings, I will start with a brief discussion on desistance from offending.
Desistance is a highly individualised process, experienced differently by different people. The majority of the academic research into the desistance process is focused on the experiences of men, although we know that women’s experiences are different to their male counterparts. Therefore, I chose to engage with women’s perspectives in my PhD, to explore how different approaches and interventions supported the desistance process.
In depth retrospective qualitative interviews were undertaken with women from ethnically diverse backgrounds (47% were from black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds). Police records and practitioner case notes were also used to build the context and profile. In essence, the focus was upon how women who had offended in the past made sense of interventions and approaches which had supported them.
Essentially, from the perspective of women offenders, the issue was not “about” the offending. When asked about the desistance process, the concerns of women offenders are mainly rooted in recovery – and layers of recovery. As is documented widely, women in contact with the Criminal Justice System (CJS) have many support needs, often as a result of experiencing interpersonal violence and abuse in childhood and adulthood. In this work, discussions with women offenders have included experiences of: childhood abuse, neglect, domestic violence, rape, homelessness, street based violence and problematic alcohol and drug misuse. My research found that many of the women’s immediate concerns tended to present as “coping” and in some cases women’s responses to experiencing trauma was to “block it” such as with drug and alcohol use, which from their perspective “made sense.”
“Vulnerabilities” or triggers experienced by women who have offended
There are particular “vulnerabilities”, or triggers, which women offenders can experience as users of the criminal justice and also, mental health systems. The following provides a brief and non-exhaustive list, based on insights from female service users:
- Trust is a paradox: Within contexts of interpersonal violence and abuse, it is “safer” not to trust. This means that it can be very difficult for women offenders to engage with services. Particular practitioner (including voluntary sector and probation practitioners as well as psychologists and counsellors) and support worker approaches can promote and reinforce this further, or they can nurture safety and work in ways which empower and offer choice.
- Use of power, authority and judgement: Women offenders are both perpetrators and victims of crime. However, the experience of being in court, frequently, if not exclusively, involves being judged for perpetration of crime. Feelings of being judged prevail:
“I don’t believe judges really cared about women like me - going through such, you know, traumatic things, you know, they are just quick to point the finger”- (T, 17 prior convictions, 21 years of domestic violence and childhood abuse).
- The ‘system’ does not reflect the reality of the lives of many women offenders: Similarly, practitioners, in whatever field, were described in relation to using power and authority. Women in contact with the CJS therefore choose to engage with practitioners who make them feel emotionally safe. Working therapeutically is a key factor in women offenders’ engagement with services, as it requires commitment and revolves around the individual.
Using insights from resilience theory to underpin trauma informed care
Essentially, trauma informed care requires an understanding of the impact of trauma and the approaches which should be put in place to address this impact. This is a way of working which can be used in conjunction with (and does not replace) securing access to essential services, such as housing, for example. There are different ways of understanding the impact of trauma informed care, which include the psychological, biological and the social effects of trauma. The research project I am working on uses insights from resilience theory to underpin trauma informed care.
Building resilience underpins the recovery process for women who have offended and is central to the work. Based upon insights gained from discussions with women service users, relational resources (ie, making connections with people) formed key elements in the process of recovery. The particular approaches used by practitioners were described as central to this, for the reasons described above. Building resilience, through relational resources and enhancing self-efficacy beliefs, supported the women service users to exercise control and choice over their lives. This is a particularly hard process to manage, especially as service users may have been “stuck in scary places”.
As many women who have offended have experienced trauma, in childhood and also in adulthood, it is essential that they are able to receive trauma informed care from statutory and voluntary sector organisations alike. Essentially, trauma informed care requires an understanding of the impact of trauma and the approaches which should be put in place to address this impact.
I will discuss further insights and outline more findings from my research in a later blog which will be published on 7th December 2015. Policy and practice need to be informed by the lessons we can learn from women who have offended in the past, in relation to resilience and recovery.
Rebecca is working towards completion of her PhD at Durham University. Contact details and enquiries regarding this project may be requested from: firstname.lastname@example.org