Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice
COMMENDEES 2011-12: Mike, Bob, Susan and Charley are a multidisciplinary group commended for their contributions to developing services for women vulnerable to offending in the Blackpool area. (This Commendation is supported by the Wates Foundation).
[Charley Wilkinson gives her account of the work for which Lancashire Probation Trust were awarded a Commendation]
Blackpool Women’s Centre was an initiative established in 2010 to meet an identified need to respond to the fact that Blackpool has the highest number of female offenders in Lancashire. It works through vision, passion, innovative leadership and team work.
Blackpool Women’s Centre provides a one stop shop offering a holistic approach to addressing the issues relating to women’s offending. We are fast gaining an enviable reputation for the quality and extent of our work with partner agencies including Criminal Justice and Third Sector organisations. The Women’s Centre is a partnership between Blackpool Advocacy and Addaction, both of which are well established organisations both locally and nationally in the case of Addaction. These two organisations bring a wealth of knowledge of working with vulnerable and chaotic clients. Demonstrating our effectiveness after only 2 years in operation is somewhat limited but our evidence shows that women are engaging with our project and assessed needs are translating into positive outcomes. We have also developed close working relationships with our local Probation Office, all induction appointments for women are held here and Probation staff use our premises for National Standard appointments. We are piloting a compliance activity requirement for women who have breached sentence this will be delivered by Women’s Centre staff. We are working with Probation to measure how these initiatives improve compliance as breach is a key point for women to enter custody.
We engage with women at all stages of the criminal justice system and will work towards prevention, rehabilitation and resettlement of offenders. This includes partnership work with Criminal Justice agencies including sentencers, Police, Crown Prosecution Service and the Probation Service. Our steering group are looking at developing a women only Attendance Centre. We are also liasing with the Police to signpost women to our service following arrest and caution and with Lancashire Probation Trust to work with women who have a history of non compliance to reduce the risk of imprisonment following breach. . The steering group has a terms of reference which all agencies have signed and agreed to, this governance and structure assists in the direction of the work of the Centre.
In order to achieve the aims, the Women’s Centre delivers the following objectives and feels that a multi-agency approach is the best practice for the centre to achieve its outcomes as set by NOMS:-
Staff were recruited due to their specific skills and experience as the Centre needed to be set up as a priority, all the staff have highly competent with a passion for working within the criminal justice sector and this has been part of the success of the Centre.
It would be fair to say that all agencies understimated the need for the service offered by Blackpool Women’s Centre, we have operated at a level above the capacity of the initial NOMS assessment reaching yearly targets in less than 6 months.The majority of women referred have 3 or more identified issues related to offending pathways. We have utilsed partnership provision in specialist pathways, hosted Social Work students who have been an invaluable resource and are developing volunteer and peer mentor support for women accessing the Centre..
Blackpool is a mix of demographics but includes areas of substantial deprivation which can be exacerbated by a significant transient population including women fleeing domestic abuse .Early mortality and substance misuse figures are above average and are a priority for health service intervention, the number of families requiring statutory support is an issue for the local authority.
Seventeen of the localities in Blackpool are in the 3% of the most deprived localities in England. 20% of the working age population in Blackpool have no qualifications and female life expectancy for females from birth is the 6th lowest in England.
Blackpool has the highest number of women offenders of any Probation Office in Lancashire.
The Women’s Centre has a high engagement rate – despite the chaotic lifestyles of many women referred approximately 60% of engage for a period of three months or more, their journey is tracked by using a tool called ‘The Outcome Star’ which enables women to look at how far they have come and what they have achieved. We also undertake Service User Evaluations, we have a service user forum and we use case studies to highlight the outcomes being achieved to ensure that our stakeholders understand the importance and success of the service.
Our One Stop Shop approach has been embraced by partner agencies and allows for speedy access to services for women at crisis point. Only those women assessed as having critical need are currently offered more intensive caseworker support although no woman is ever turned away without at least initial guidance.
It is the partnership approach and the utilisation of a multi-agency team within one building which I feel has been a fantastic example of good practice for the Centre.
It allows women to access a safe, positive environment with specialist staff who deal with a wide range of issues. We specifically concentrate on the pathways related to offending and on average we find that women present with 4 or more issues. (Please see graphs attached for statistics)
Without the centre then all the advantages for these women would be taken away and they would be less empowered to live the lives they chose and to be able to reach their potential. Women play a positive and important role in society and can provide skills, knowledge and experience to the community of Blackpool. By accessing the centre they are able to build upon these skills and we provide encouragement to help them make changes in their lives and address social exclusion and offending. Each women is subject to a comprehensive assessment of risks and needs of the individual women and a support plan with clear objectives for the individual woman. Group sessions are also available and include courses in basic literacy and numaracy.
Our partners are from both criminal justice and non criminal justice agencies however we are focussing on Interventions which address the offending pathways. Our commitment is to enable women to have successful outcomes particularly in relation to employment, emotional well being, substance misuse and relationships. We also have a legal advice service provided free of charge by a local solicitors, specialist domestic abuse services on site and can offer a small range of holistic therapies. We have recently received funding for a clinical room which will allow for women’s health screening and sexual health services to be delivered on site. A wide range of partners deliver services from the centre including ADS, Drugline, Women’s Aid, Addaction, Shiver(sexual health and sex worker advice), Inward House(drug misuse) and Adult Learning. We can access the services of an Ofsted inspected nursery where childcare needs impact on a woman’s ability to engage with services.
Our partnership work has been recognised as a good example of good practice and we are one of the named examples in the recent Thematic inspection of the Prisons and Probation.
All of our partners have to sign our ‘Partnership agreement and questionnaire’ this allows us to look at the partners on a regular basis to ensure that they share our ethos and deliver the services we require and to a high standard.
We are currently being evaluated by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, University of London and whilst we hope for good results we are eager to learn from any information to continue to develop the service and use the lessons from the first two years of opening to strive to improve the service where we can.
The Steering Group has been set up and has representatives from various key agencies including Police, Probation, Health, Social Services and Adult Learning; Third Sector organisations are also represented and seen as key to the success of the project. Meetings are held on a monthly basis and have a set agenda. We have also appointed lay members with specialist knowledge of women’s issues and offending including local magistrates.
The enthusiasm and commitment of partner agencies has been magnificent, more importantly vulnerable women are crossing the threshold and engaging with services at an unanticipated level. Local media and community support has also been positive. (Please see attached press coverage)
NOMS North West wrote to me after I delivered a presentation to the NW Women’s Support Forum and they said ‘It was wonderful to hear that the Blackpool Women’s Project has got off to such a terrific start and I am sure that your approach to partnership working has been a critical factor in your early success’
We have been very fortunate since opening and the hard work and determination alongside high quality services has been recognised by other areas and we have opened a second Women’s Centre in Wyre and are in negotiations to open in Lancaster. This would ensure a North Lancashire coverage for Women in need.
We believe we are making a significant difference to women and they tell us this regularly, one women in particular told us that ‘If I had known about you before I had offended, I probably wouldn’t have offended’, she has now referred her sister to the centre.
There has been a significant increase in the outcomes for both those recognised in ‘The Corston Report’ but also for women in Blackpool whose lifestyle and behaviour puts them at risk of committing criminal offences due to the Women’s Centre being available to them.
[The following article appeared in issue 4 of the Butler Trust’s magazine, Inspire]
Blackpool Women’s Centre demonstrates how previously unconnected organisations can come together to deliver a first-rate programme, and Mike Crowther, Bob Orange, Charley Wilkinson, and Susan Ratcliffe have all been commended for developing services for local women at risk of reoffending. As chief executive of Blackpool Advocacy, Mike was approached by Lancashire Probation Trust and NOMS in February 2010 about possible funding for a women’s project. However, there was a catch. ‘We were told, “we’ve got the funding but we need to find Blackpool premises in the next eight weeks – can you do it?”,’ he says.
Blackpool Advocacy were already delivering services to domestic abuse victims, and despite never having worked together, Mike and Bob – manager of Blackpool Addaction – responded to the challenge instantly. ‘Addaction were actually moving out of their building, which was a very accessible town centre location, so within the space of a few minutes I met with Bob and we put together a very quick plan involving staff, building and IT,’ says Mike. ‘Then we had a very quick local promotional campaign to excite some interest among service providers.’
Amazingly, the fully staffed and refurbished centre was operational within five months, with Charley appointed as centre coordinator. ‘Because we’re a local charity we do have very good links, but we’re also very used to doing things in a very short space of time,’ says Mike. ‘But it wasn’t a back of a fag packet type thing – we put together a very detailed plan, and we did need the buy-in from other key service providers in Blackpool.’
The project had a target of engaging with 200 women vulnerable to offending in the first year – easily exceeded after just eight months – and almost 600 women have been referred so far. Susan, senior probation officer with Lancashire Probation Trust, makes sure that all women subject to probation supervision have appointments at the centre, and she also secured funding for a clinical room to deliver sexual health screening.
Referrals come from Lancashire Probation Trust and the police, as well as substance misuse services, health visitors, midwives and other providers. ‘But because we’re really recognised now in the local community, women increasingly are approaching us themselves,’ says Mike. ‘About a quarter now are self-referrals.’
Feedback from the police has been extremely positive, he says. ‘Obviously the police have to follow procedures when working with women involved in low-level crime like shoplifting, but it’s a pretty enlightened force in Blackpool. They were looking for options for what to do with these women, rather than send them back to the same environment that will lead to more offending. They like the fact that they can easily refer into the centre and from that point they know that there’ll be a whole series of offers of support.’
What’s extraordinary is that the positive feedback extends to the local community and even the local press – not always champions of this kind of initiative. ‘We’ve not had a negative reaction at all,’ he says. ‘It’s been universally welcomed as a vital element of local service provision. The Evening Gazette, like most local papers, aren’t necessarily sympathetic to the client group we’re working with, but we’ve now had about four or five very positive articles, including editorials saying what a fantastic service it is. It’s quite surprising.’
There’s been a marked impact on reoffending, with around 89 per cent so far not having reoffended. ‘We’re already seeing that if you put services in a female-only environment, they’re more likely to engage. Engagement at the women’s centre is actually higher than at the probation office nearby.’ And what about feedback from the women themselves? ‘The main thing is women will have experienced domestic abuse, and we can guarantee an environment away from that abusive partner or dealer or whoever. They won’t have to face that person when they’re accessing these services. The feedback is that they feel safe, secure and supported, but the most important thing is that they don’t feel judged.
‘But it’s a lot more than “isn’t your life awful and we’re here to support you”’ he continues. ‘It’s “these are the issues” – whether it’s housing, substance misuse or debt. We put together a comprehensive support package to address those issues, so it’s a serious piece of work about reducing their propensity to reoffending.’
There’s been genuine buy-in from local service provision, he stresses. ‘We’ve got Blackpool Council’s adult learning team delivering a whole range of courses – things like confidence building, assertiveness, IT skills – which are really thriving, and there are also more low-key peer support groups that service users have set up themselves, like a knitting group. Lots of people with a history of criminality and substance misuse come to that every week and find it one of their support mechanisms.
’What about funding? ‘That’s an issue,’ he says. ‘We have no guarantee of funding after March, which is not unusual for our sector, but I’m extremely optimistic that we’ll continue to get funding. That’s not complacency, it’s because of the buy-in we’ve got from the Ministry of Justice, Blackpool Council, NHS Blackpool and local fundraising initiatives.’
So what’s the key to getting it done so quickly – what advice would he offer? ‘The first thing is to be absolutely convinced of the rightness of the idea and clear about what you want to achieve, and you’ve got to be passionate. You’ve also got to be completely single-minded, which can sometimes mean other priorities need to be shifted. But all this needs to be underpinned by a very clear project plan – don’t leave it to chance – and get your partners in place. You need a very clear business strategy and to be sure it’s sustainable. I was completely sold on this straightaway, and that’s been proven by the level of referrals and the services.’
Receiving the Butler Trust award has had a very positive impact, he says. ‘We’re amazed – really very pleased. I’m really pleased for the staff, because they’ve put in a lot of hard work and dedication.’