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 is the last of two blogs. The first blog, published last week, set out some of the main findings from my research, which started as an exploration of what desistance “means” to women who have offended in the past. In my previous blog, I explored support within the criminal justice and related mental health systems, from the perspective of women offenders who had lived experience of violence and other adverse experiences, including: rape and domestic violence; street based violence; childhood abuse; and neglect. Subsequently, the work has developed into an account of what builds resilience for supporting recovery. This blog considers how building resilience to support recovery can inform trauma informed care and makes suggestions which the voluntary sector may wish to engage with. I will start with an account of some of the evidence from this project.
Insights from women who have offended emphasise the significance of practitioner approaches, which support the process of recovery. This includes being non-judgmental and also an awareness of the difficulties which women service users may have with trust, particularly if relationships have resulted in violence and abuse in the past. Being trauma informed means recognising how trauma can impact upon behaviour and accommodating this. This includes working in ways whereby we can try to understand how women offenders adapt to experiences of violence and abuse, both threatened and actual, and how we can support and encourage engagement.
Consequently, building resilience to support recovery from trauma rests upon relational resources. This means that the input from practitioners and “similar others”, or peers, is fundamental for initial supportive engagement. Building resilience also rests upon the environments, or spaces, that provide a safe platform from which women offenders can start their recovery, feel empowered and have a clear sense of future.
Undoubtedly, it would be beneficial to women service users if, from prison through to community based organisations, plans and procedures to develop trauma informed services and build resilience were in place - and in the same way that being trauma informed involves building relational resources or connections, the system should reflect a joined up approach across health and criminal justice systems. Also, diversity and different needs should be incorporated, based on insights from the perspective of women offenders.
The risks involved if women offenders do not engage with services are high: service user insights in this work found the number of “near misses” due to hitting the lowest points, such as near fatal overdoses and suicides, provides substantial evidence to support the need for trauma informed approaches. The impact of violence and abuse in relation to substance misuse and mental health support needs for depression, self-harming behaviour and suicide is high. Additionally, the inter-generational effects on the children of mothers sent to prison and the risk of mortality have been well documented. The main priority is therefore to develop viable alternatives to prison which work within the community and working in ways, in prison, which divert and prevent future incarceration.
Supporting the process of being trauma informed
Unfortunately, of course, there are many challenges, as competitive tendering for services, resources and joined-up ways of working have to be negotiated. However, given the evidence to support the need for service provision which is trauma informed, arguably, it should be prioritised. The following is a list which, based upon insights from service users, are considerations which may support the process of being trauma informed:
Focus on building resilience to support recovery, utilising the theoretical underpinnings of resilience with regard to childhood trauma and also experiences of violence and abuse in adulthood – and how this impacts upon mental health and behaviour. Essentially, to not exclude women based upon diagnosis (having received, or not received, a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for example).
Service users and ex-service users need to be directly involved and advise on developing a shared voice in relation to values and vision for trauma informed approaches for women. This should intersect directly with health and criminal justice systems for trauma informed practice.
Share knowledge on models of collaboration which work across criminal justice, mental health and trauma informed services, to consider what underpins good practice.
Build upon work being undertaken in the prison estate, most notably ‘One Small Thing’ which has brought together insights from Stephanie Covington’s recent visit, advocating for trauma informed practice. More information about the project can be found on the projects’ website here.
Consider opportunities for establishing what is needed in terms of training for building resilience and being trauma informed. This should include attendance to the adaptive and protective responses which women who have offended learn, including women who have experienced long term abuse histories – and to support practitioners to engage with this.
What are the next steps?
The good news is that there is a lot of expertise out there – most of the participants involved in this work have been enthusiastic regarding support offered. Trauma informed practice does not replace specialist interventions which support women offenders, although it is an approach which provides an emotionally safe platform from which to start and continually engage with women. Building resilience to support the recovery process can then proceed, based on having re-established relational resources, building self-efficacy and working in an empowering way, in order for futures to be re-built.
It is imperative that women service user insights and experiences count. This approach does not conform to traditional methods of utilising “big” data to evidence support needs. This is because women offenders comprise an under-represented group, who have traditionally been excluded. I would hope that services which work with women who have offended and deliver interventions put gender-informed procedures and policy in place. The next steps in this project include scoping how building resilience can impact on recovery across a range of different service providers working with women offenders. The aim is to inform how building resilience can be tailored for different needs across different services and the subsequent links with offending and desistance. The incentive is to utilise insights from women service users and further develop existing good practice.
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