Lincolnshire Women's Strategy: Supporting Women and Girls at Risk of Entering the Criminal Justice System
The Safer Lincolnshire Partnership has used a Ministry of Justice Women’s Community Sector Core Costs Funding Grant, awarded to Lincolnshire Action Trust, to create a new Lincolnshire Women’s Strategy to facilitate the delivery in Lincolnshire of the outcomes sought by the Ministry of Justice’s Female Offender Strategy 2018.
The grant award said, “The purpose of the grant funding is to stabilise the financial position of women’s community sector organisations in England and Wales to support the continued availability of community-based provision for female offenders. This provision is essential to successful delivery of the aims and objectives of the Government’s Female Offender Strategy, published in June 2018.”
Work on developing this strategy was informed by the voices of four Lincolnshire women who had had experience of the criminal justice system and who generously told us their stories. They were interviewed confidentially by women academics from the University of Lincoln who then summarised those stories in a meeting of the Safer Lincolnshire Partnership’s sub-group formed to work on this strategy. Those stories were hard to listen to because of what sub-group members felt was the avoidable pain that the women, their families and friends had experienced. The main themes from these interviews were:
The women identified influences that had shaped their behaviour: isolation, family problems, debt, addiction, and mental ill-health.
- Traumatic experiences in childhood had resulted in coping strategies associated with crime, such as shop lifting and knife carrying.
- Mental health problems had gone untreated and had exacerbated offending behaviours.
There were key themes of lack of support, inadequate continuity of care and failure to adopt mental health informed and trauma informed approaches.
- All four women spoke of fractured or lost family relationships that had heightened their need for support.
- All four women reported positive things about probation and Lincolnshire Action Trust's women's service that probation had referred them to. These included becoming more hopeful and having opportunities to develop or reshape positive identities.
Graduates from the University of Lincoln worked with the group to create a short animation that captures the women's stories.
Some suggestions had emerged from the interviews:
- The clear need for earlier intervention.
- The need for continued possibilities for support rather than support being cut off through the time-limiting of interventions.
- Support around positive identity and of wishing to build up a positive identity. Where they had had such support, it had been beneficial.
- Support needed to take place earlier rather than being attached to the criminal justice system and should be centred around welcoming and safe groups in women only spaces.
- The positive impact of peer support with women learning from each other.
- The power of the lived experience stories from the criminal justice system in terms of peer support and the need to explain the later consequences of crime.
- The importance of the type of accommodation made available after custody to reflect the individual needs of women. Some accommodation that women had been required to live in had led to re-traumatising experiences.
The key messages received by the Safer Lincolnshire Partnership’s sub-group working on the strategy were:
- The importance of support. It was sad that the women said that they had received effective support only within the criminal justice system. A lot of women did not feel safe in the world and simply needed a safety net.
- A key issue was the need to promote positive identities as early as possible. Support was also vital, but this was not just mental health support but should include peer support, coaching, mentoring and kindness. All these would help women build positive identities. They were activities that should be integrated with mental health services.
- Services should be trauma informed from day one.
The women’s positive feedback about probation had occurred when the women had worked with a Lincolnshire Action Trust's women’s service. This had reinforced the lessons of broader research which had indicated that third sector interventions were preferred to mainstream service provision.
Services in Lincolnshire
The Safer Lincolnshire Partnership is aware that women-specific services found in other areas (even those similar in geography and population) are absent in Lincolnshire, to the detriment of women and girls in the county. It has decided to find a way forward by supporting community and other services to build capacity in working with women and girls.
The strategic priorities that constitute this strategy are:
- It is for all women and girls.
- Women centred.
- Supported by a sustainable women’s centre service.
- Focussed on early intervention.
- Accepting of the complexity of women’s needs.
- Diversion away from the criminal justice system should take place whenever possible.
- A Whole System Approach.
- Trauma informed practice.
- Based on a Lincolnshire Concordat reflecting the national Concordat on women in or at risk of contact with the Criminal Justice System.
The Safer Lincolnshire Partnership will also adopt the National Probation Service Action Plan covering building a whole system approach, reducing the use of prison sentences under 12 months, and improving the journey through the criminal justice system.
Strategic priority 1: The Lincolnshire Women's Strategy is for all women and girls
The Lincolnshire Women’s Strategy is for all women and girls in Lincolnshire, not only those in the criminal justice system. This is because many women in the criminal justice system have themselves previously been victims of crime and continue to be at risk of male violence when they leave the system. Those with mental ill health, personality disorder and learning disability may not have had access to appropriately designed services. If those services had been in place for them, the path that led to their entry into the criminal justice system could have been interrupted.
Many women in prison have been victims of much more serious offences than the ones they are accused of, with research indicating that women’s exposure to physical, emotional and sexual abuse, including coercive control, is for many a driver of their offending. A key difference between women and men in prison is that family relationships tend to be a protective factor for men but, for women, relationships are often a risk factor. Baroness Corston’s study of women in the criminal justice system 2007 found that coercion by male partners and relatives is a distinct route into criminality and prison for some women.
The co-existence of victimisation and offending is now better recognised, but the links between them are still not well understood by all agencies. There has been some progress both in tackling violence and abuse against women and girls, and in the treatment of victims in the criminal justice system. Improvements in the police response and in aspects of the court process should lead to benefits for women offenders affected by domestic abuse, but challenges remain.
Strategic priority 2: Services used by women and girls should be women centred
Experience elsewhere has shown the importance of a women’s centre service to provide a women and girl friendly space in which services can be delivered.
The evidence from research considered by the Safer Lincolnshire Partnership is that women at risk respond more effectively if services are women centred – that is, services should be:
- Gender informed - women-only, run by women for women.
- Trauma informed (see Strategic Priority 8).
- Delivered by voluntary sector organisations wherever possible.
- Wrap around: accepting of the complexity of women’s needs and providing support that extends to all aspects of the woman’s life and with sufficient time to create trusting relationships. This means understanding the need for more than one service being required for women, perhaps in conjunction with other services at the same time or sequencing the services. This will often be helped by navigator practitioners who are able to use appropriate psychological tools to support the relationship.
Strategic priority 3: Services for women and girls should be supported by a sustainable women’s centre
The evidence indicates that the existence of a women’s centre would support agencies’ achievement of the other strategic priorities of the strategy, in particular, the creation of a supportive women only space as a base for services. The Safer Lincolnshire Partnership has agreed:
- This should not be seen fundamentally as a charitable exercise: women’s centres work best when there is buy-in from statutory agencies.
- Effective women’s centres elsewhere have benefitted from statutory agencies’ applications for central government tenders including women’s centres as part of a holistic approach.
- An effective women’s centre strategy would be about any women at risk – not just those in the criminal justice system.
- The aim should be to interrupt the pathways that are currently leading women and girls into the criminal justice system by fixing issues that had prevented them from accessing services at earlier stages in their lives.
- Women’s voices should be used to shape the service. Where, for example, they have tried but failed to access support.
- A women’s centre would also have a role in the response to women post sentence, especially following release from prison.
The need for a women’s centre is especially apparent in preparation for women’s release from prison. It is important to be informed in good time when a woman or girl with a Lincolnshire address is to be released from custody in order to engage with them well in advance. This will enable appropriate responses to the complexity of women’s lives, for experience the needs of their children.
Lincolnshire is behind other areas in the provision of women’s centre services. One important consideration, therefore, is where a Lincolnshire women’s centre project should start. The Safer Lincolnshire Partnership believes that it would be best to start on a small scale at grass roots level by helping existing generic services to grow their capacity.
The Safer Lincolnshire Partnership also believes in the importance of sustainable funding. The leaders of front-line organisations are often preoccupied with bidding for funding to the extent of being drawn away from engagement with service users. Sustainable funding is therefore a key objective of the Lincolnshire Women’s Strategy.
The Safer Lincolnshire Partnership has adopted the following definition of a woman’s centre:
Women's Centres are independent specialist community support services.They only serve women, in recognition of the well-evidenced need for gender-specific interventions. Centres provide holistic, woman-centred, trauma-informed services in safe, women-only spaces. The aim is to help all women to gain the skills and confidence to become more independent and reach their full potential. Many provide access to specialist advocacy, advice and support on housing, substance misuse, mental and physical health, employment, debt, domestic abuse and family and parenting issues. This can be through in-house specialist staff and through partnerships with other agencies.
Strategic priority 4: Services should adopt early intervention to prevent involvement in the criminal justice system
The peak age for women offending is 15, in stark contrast to men whose peak age is 23. This strongly suggests that providing new services for girls experiencing or likely to experience adverse childhood experiences (ACE), or building capacity in existing services, could have profound benefits for girls and their families. It could also interrupt pathways into the criminal justice system at the earliest opportunity, using services unconnected with the criminal justice system: education, health, and children services.
Strategic priority 5: Services should accept women’s and girls’ complex needs and not use complexity as a reason to reject them
Women and girls at risk of entering the criminal justice system typically present with complex needs. That is, they often have two or more needs affecting their physical, mental, social or financial wellbeing. Too often women have been rejected by services because their needs are complex. This strategic priority means that Lincolnshire services now agree to hold women service users in engagement with services and to respond holistically to their needs.
Strategic priority 6: Services should commit to diverting women and girls from the criminal justice system
Criminal justice outcomes can be especially damaging for women. Although women constitute less than 5% of people in prison, they account for over 19% of self-harm incidents, an indication of the traumatic impact of imprisonment on many. Women entering prison are more likely to have been imprisoned for non-violent offences. Women in prison are highly likely to be victims as well as offenders. Over half the women in prison report having suffered domestic violence with 53% of women reporting having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child. Women in prison are more than twice as likely as men to say they have committed offences to support someone else’s drug use as well as their own. Many have histories indicative of brain injury and for most this is caused by domestic violence. Many of women in prison have dependent children – nationally, an estimated 17,000 children are separated from their mothers by imprisonment every year.
Many women who are imprisoned receive short prison sentences. These are highly damaging and do not allow for any effective work. Around 77% receive sentences of under 12 months. HMP Peterborough (where Lincolnshire women first go when remanded or sentenced to imprisonment) recently reported that the average length of stay for a woman was 21 days. Such sentences do not allow sufficient time for any rehabilitative work to be completed in custody. Access to programmes and interventions are prioritised for those on longer term sentences.
The Criminal Justice Liaison and Diversion service run by Lincolnshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust and Lincolnshire Action Trust is in every Lincolnshire police custody suite. It offers the opportunity of diverting vulnerable women and girls away from the criminal justice centre at the earliest stage. The problem is that there are so few appropriate services and even fewer that provide the women centred care that the Safer Lincolnshire Partnership regards as essential for effectiveness.
It is for these reasons that the Safer Lincolnshire Partnership will be renewing its efforts to keep women and girls out of custody by diverting away from the criminal justice system whenever possible.
Strategic priority 7: A Lincolnshire whole system approach
The aim of a whole system approach is to assess women’s needs at their first contact with the criminal justice system, and to provide gender responsive, multi-agency support throughout their justice journeys or diversion from the criminal justice system. The intention is to use existing resources differently to target support more effectively, avoiding gaps or duplication in service provision, and supporting women to access provision. But the Lincolnshire model in addition also involves all stakeholders outside the criminal justice system working to ensure their services stop women and girls entering the criminal justice system or facilitating their exit from the system.
The Lincolnshire whole system approach will divert women away from the criminal justice system, whenever possible. It means investment in upstream services even though savings may take place elsewhere.
Strategic priority 8: Lincolnshire trauma informed services
Understanding of trauma has increased significantly along with a growing recognition of the role services can play in perpetuating trauma, inadvertently causing further harm to some of the most vulnerable people they work with. Understanding the impact of trauma on women is therefore vital for providing effective services.
The current understanding of the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on women will also be taken into account by Lincolnshire services. These are the more everyday traumas that can be overlooked (for example, parental divorce and parents who abuse alcohol). Women who score four or more ACEs have significantly poorer health outcomes in adult life. Women in prison frequently score four or more ACEs. This reinforces the importance of health commissioners’ support for the Concordat (see Strategic Priority 9).
Trauma-informed services create a culture of thoughtfulness and communication, continuously doing their best to learn about, and adapt to, the different and changing needs of the individuals they work with. In order to do this, it is crucial that services are willing and able to engage with complexity. As a result, trauma-informed care is most usefully defined in terms of ongoing processes, approaches and values, rather than fixed procedures.
There are in addition various touch points prior to contact with the criminal justice system, for example, GP surgeries, midwives, and dentists. All organisations likely to come into contact with vulnerable women have a role to play in identifying concerns and referring.
Strategic priority 9: Lincolnshire Concordat
The national Concordat on women in or at risk of contact with the Criminal Justice System sets out how Government and other partners should work together to identify and respond to the needs of women. The Concordat aims to encourage partnerships at both the national and local level. It is not intended to replace current arrangements, where these are working well, but rather to build on them to improve existing support to women. Accordingly, the agreement in Lincolnshire is for the Safer Lincolnshire Partnership, under the leadership of the PCC, to drive forward the Lincolnshire Women’s Strategy.
The Lincolnshire Concordat differs from the national Concordat in one important respect. The latter only considers the needs of adult women and does not include the youth justice system unless explicitly stated. The Lincolnshire Concordat, however, recognises that peak offending for girls takes place at the early age of 15 and reflects concern that teenage girls’ mental health and other needs should be addressed urgently.
By participating in the Concordat, Lincolnshire agencies have agreed to work together to identify and respond to the needs of women. This will mean changes to agencies’ 2021-22 business plans and strategic priorities in order to prevent women and girls entering the criminal justice system by ensuring that they have access to the services they need, at the times in their lives when those services will have the biggest impact and in ways that women themselves have told us will make a difference.
Participants of the concordat commit to working together to improve outcomes for Lincolnshire women and girls at risk of entering, or who have already entered, the criminal justice sector.