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01 June 2020

Blog: A place to go like this

Katy Swaine Williams, Senior Programme Manger for the Transforming Lives programme, and Senior Researcher at the award-winning charity Advance, highlights the findings of Advance’s new report and explains what all agencies can do to help break the cycle of harm for mothers involved in offending who are survivors of domestic abuse, and their children.

*Tamsin’s name and some details of her story have been changed to protect her anonymity.

“There’s no excuse, we make our own choices.”

So Tamsin*, mother of three, told me during my research for Advance’s ‘A Place to Go Like This’ report, published on 13 March. The research was funded by London’s Violence Reduction Unit to help inform improvements in the statutory and non-statutory response to mothers involved in offending who are survivors of domestic abuse, and their children.

Tamsin’s parents never had much money and she was 10 years old when she started shoplifting to clothe herself. Her mother had mental health problems and Tamsin spent a couple of years in care. As an adult, her abusive partner (now ex) left her with a brain injury that caused a long term health problem. Her children were removed by social services a year before her referral to Advance because – Tamsin believes – the judge thought she was not able to protect them from her abuser.

Tamsin was referred to Advance’s Minerva programme, alongside her community order for assault, a year before I met her. The programme offers intensive one-to-one wrap around support to thousands of women like Tamsin each year. Advance works across 22 London boroughs in partnership with statutory and non-statutory agencies, in a whole system approach. It offers safe, gendered, targeted support and advocacy to help women address their often complex needs in relation to offending behaviour, with women’s centres in North and West London. The charity’s approach is holistic and woman-centred. Keyworkers offer tenacious advocacy on behalf of their clients, practical help, frequent communication and support, access to peer support and one-to-one and group programmes. For mothers in contact with social services, keyworkers can be crucial mediators, helping them to navigate the system and providing an additional resource to inform social workers’ decisions.

At the heart of the service is the keyworkers’ consistent, unconditional positive regard for the women they support. This may be regarded as the professional equivalent of a close, positive family relationship or friendship. With histories of poverty, trauma and abuse that often go back to early childhood, many women have never experienced such a relationship before and the effect can be transformative.

When Tamsin was first contacted by Advance she wasn’t interested. She didn’t see herself as a victim/survivor of domestic abuse and didn’t see what they could offer her. All she wanted was to get her children back and Advance couldn’t help with that, could they? However, the persistence, compassion and insight of her Advance keyworker paid off and, by the time I met Tamsin a year after her referral, she had taken up every single invitation and referral by her keyworker, regularly attending Advance’s women’s centres, joining support groups and receiving talking therapy. With her keyworker’s help, she had re-established a working relationship with social services and was instructing a solicitor to apply for her children
to be returned to her care.

In the report we explore how violence against women and girls often lies at the heart of their offending and the intergenerational cycle of harm. We set out the changes that Advance plans to make in order to help break that cycle by developing a Whole Family Approach, including a new Minerva Family Support Worker role. We encourage other agencies to make changes, calling on the police and social services to develop closer working relationships with women’s services like Minerva, to enable a more expert understanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse and the drivers of women’s offending; asking local and national commissioners to invest in early intervention, specialist services for girls, and support for children whose mothers are involved in the criminal justice system; and encouraging MOPAC to lead a scoping exercise for the establishment of specialist women’s courts in London.

Hearing Tamsin talk about her keyworker, and seeing them catch up after our meeting, I was left in no doubt as to the quality of their relationship, and what the Minerva service means to Tamsin. Services like this can make the difference that really matters to mothers like her and their children, reducing reoffending and helping families to be together.

At the report’s launch at City Hall on 13 March, it was heartening to see the commitment of both statutory and non-statutory agencies to improving how they work with this vulnerable group, so that women like Tamsin can receive the help  they need at a much earlier stage.