LIVE BLOG: women in the criminal justice system – mothers too

Women’s Breakout AGM and Re-Unite Network meeting

Women and mothers in prison criminal justice system

Organisations and professionals working with women offenders and ex-offenders today met at two principal events for the criminal justice sector.

The morning was dedicated to a Re-Unite network meeting, focussing on mothers and children in the criminal justice system, and the afternoon was the AGM for Women’s Breakout.

Women’s Breakout is an umbrella organisation that represents organisations working with women offenders and women at risk of involvement in the criminal justice system. Re-Unite is a project run several charities, aiming to run the most effective programme in England and Wales for reuniting and resettling families when a mother is released from prison.

An impressive range of speakers delivered short talks, including Yvonne Rodgers from Barnardo’s talking about how children re affected and Laura Seebohm from Changing Lives talking about support for women involved in sex work and sexual exploitation.

Look at the full agenda here.

Follow the hashtag #womenmatter on Twitter and tune in here from 10am for full coverage throughout the day.

For background information on women in the criminal justice system, have a look at our guide to women in prison.


Wrapping up

That’s the end of a day of talks from Women’s Breakout members about their projects, funders, and key people within Women’s Breakout.

We hope you enjoyed today’s liveblog. We’ll be following up on today’s key stories later in the week so don’t forget to check back.


Identifying mental health issues

Matina Maougka from Together UK explains how liaison and diversion services can identify and support women with mental health issues and other vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system.

  • They have set up women specific services working with all kinds of problems, be it learning disabilities, substance misuse or other treatment services.
  • They support women as soon as possible when they become involved in criminal justice.
  • Francesca discusses how her team completes assessments with women and then make recommendations to those sentencing them.
  • They encourage magistrates to consider most suitable option for women, be it mental health support, a women’s centre or something else, to avoid women from being sent to custody “for no good reason”.


Using health and well being cafe and work with hard to reach women

Rebecca Millhouse manages The Cambridge Centre.

  • Women who weren’t engaging with meetings and projects were given hot lunches.
  • Because they were coming into the centre anyway, they started engaging more and attending probation appointments too.
  • Teaching food and hygiene skills to improve work chances.
  • For some service users this is the only hot meal they have all week, so it addresses basic health needs too. Encourages women to try new foods too and improves their budgeting and planning skills.
  • Offer shower and laundry facilities too.


Spotlight on three projects

The final part of the afternoon is dedicated to showcasing three more projects from members.

First we hear from Naomi Delap from Birth Companions, which supports vulnerable women and children at birth.

  • Birth Companions was set up following the media outcry over news that women were giving birth whilst shackled to beds.
  • Runs weekly ante-natal classes in Holloway and Bronzefield prisons. Gives expert advise and also can hear from experience of other women.
  • Women in prison are disproportionately likely to be ill and have mental health issues. These factors pose risks to the women and their children.


Pitching for funding from Big Lottery Fund

Ambreen Shah shares tips on how to secure funding from the Lottery Fund. Starts by telling room “wow, I rarely sit in a room where I think ‘they’ve got it right!'”

  • Women and girls sector has been hit hard by cuts.
  • That’s why their committee is investing £48.5 million into the sector over up to five years.
  • We know many women suffer multiple issues. It’s got to be about supporting women through all of their needs.
  • We want to support projects to evaluate what’s useful for the project, not what they think the funders will want to hear.
  • Looking for girls with lived experienced to advise and sit on our panels.
  • September is the key decision making period for invitations to apply. Applicants will be notified in October, decisions made by March 2016, and money to roll out from April 2016.


Social impact bond and transforming rehabilitation

Jackie Russell talks finances for Women’s Breakout and its members, starting with a gloomy message:

  • Concerns about funding from CRCs – where and when it will come, and how much. Concerned budget could be as little as £300 per women.
  • Women’s Centres currently budget £1,500 – £2,000 for a holistic programme for one woman.
  • No more through-the-gate support for women. But these women need that assistance because they are “in crisis”.
  • Russell explains the work she’s been doing towards securing funding in future.


Helping women into jobs

Moving on to the final project to update the room on its work. Jocelyn Hillman from Working Chance talks about barriers to women getting into work.

  • Majority of women they help are mothers, have housing and debt issues.
  • Working Chance helps women tackle these issues first, so they are able to find work.
  • Then it helps with employability skills, CVs and preparing for interviews.


Supporting women involved in sex work and sexual exploitation

Laura Seebohm from Changing Lives explains how they set up support for hidden women.

“Sex work remains hidden. It’s important to know how to reach out to women and girls who are hidden from view.”

  • Street sex work is in decline because of the network of social media.
  • There’s a risk that sexual exploitation we see in high profile media cases takes the attention, and other types of exploitation are missed.


Michelle Nicholson from KeyChanges, Sheffield

“Supporting women in the criminal justice system is not easy. It’s a tough task. But it’s not just about a problem with the women, it’s a problem in the community.”


Shining a light on Women’s Breakout Projects

The next 45 minutes is dedicated to showcasing the projects of the members of Women’s Breakout. The first to speak is the Brighton Oasis Project.

  • They helped improve relationships between women and their workers, which in turn improved relationships with their children and families, which helped prevent reoffending.


Expert by experience: choices and consequences

Chantella Falconer tells how a relationship with a gang-member aged set her off on the wrong path.

  • When she was 16 Chantella and her friend spoke to a rival gang member. So members of Chantella’s gang came and shot him.
  • The gang members took Chantella away from the scene and she kept quiet about it because she was scared. Her parents didn’t even know she was involved with a gang.
  • A month later the police arrested her. She lied at first to protect herself, her family and the gang. Eventually she told the truth and was released on bail.
  • Just before Chantella had to go to court, aged 18 at the time, Chantella’s gang shot her mum as a warning against her giving evidence. So Chantella didn’t go to court and therefore was unable to defend herself.
  • In 2oo3 Chantella was found guilty of murder by joint enterprise and sentenced to life with a tariff of 10 years.
  • On release she struggled to find work. Eventually she started volunteering with children at risk of becoming involved with gangs.

Natausha van Vilet closes by saying it’s for people like Chantella that everyone is here today.


Keynote speech from Lady Edwina Grosvenor

Lady Grosvenor is a philanthropist and one of the country’s richest landowners, with an estimated worth of £7.35 billion. Her family’s wealth stems from a vulnerable female ancestor, who was married aged nine and owned land in what is now Belgravia.

  • Lady Grosvenor explains meeting with the Ministry of Justice to improve training in women’s prisons.
  • Launched initiative with MoJ, NOMS and others to train relevant staff on trauma informed practice.
  • US expert on trauma, Dr Stephanie Covington, will come to the UK to deliver the training.
  • Visit the One Small Thing website for more information.


Delivering the annual report

Jackie Russell, director of Women’s Breakout, gives an overview of this year’s work.

  • Almost 16,500 women have been helped by 37 organisations.
  • 35 organisations received just under £10m.
  • Probation accounted for a quarter of that funding. 12 per cent from local authorities, just 7 per cent from helath services.
  • Fulfill a role of connecting and communicating within the network.
  • Acted on ministerial advisory board.
  • Key work: trying to influence government, bringing together a strategic collection of your voice, securing funding for Women’s Breakout in future.
  • Widening network is important, but not as important as ensuring current members are all doing the same things: gender specific support for women.


Moving on to Women’s Breakout AGM

Back from lunch. Natausha van Vilet, chair of Women’s Breakout, sets the scene.

Audience members are excited for the afternoon’s talks.



A chance for everyone to have a break and meet the others here. Back at 13:30.


Getting money from a local authority for returning mothers to children

Delegates from various organisations that work with vulnerable women participate in a round-table discussion, about ensuring they get better support from local authorities.

Key points:

  • No one is getting paid for re-uniting mothers and children.
  • We need to develop local authorities’ awareness of cost-savings made by re-uniting families.
  • Concerns about payment-by-results.


Working for family reunification

Micki Whyte from Housing for Women talks about what it took to get a specialist ‘children’s worker’, to provide more in-depth support for children of their users.

  • Children they work with often have witnessed or experienced violence and suffered trauma from separation.
  • As a result they can suffer depression, play truancy, behave disruptively.
  • Micki introduces two case studies:
    • One where it worked: Nancy and her son David
      • David was looked after by father and grandparents while Nancy was in prison. His school attendance was 55 per cent while looked after by his father.
      • When Nancy came out, the father said David, 9, had to go immediately back to Nancy.
      • Housing for Women managed to find housing promptly for Nancy and a new school for David.
      • David behaved unusually and the school dismissed him as just a naughty kid. He had witnessed extreme domestic violence and was traumatised from the separation. School reluctant to help.
      • In high school David was temporarily excluded several times. Then moved to an emotional and behavioral school. Did well at first bu excluded again.
      • Eventually David got into a proper specialist school that was a good fit for him and is catching up with other children.
    • One where it didn’t work: Cheryl and daughter Rosie
      • Cheryl worked in prison and Rosie went to the prison nursery. On weekends Rosie went to her father.
      • Cheryl was introduced to crack cocaine aged 16 by her father. Previously one of her babies had died during a violent relationship. She had two other children taken from her.
      • When she came out Cheryl had to attend appointments everyday and received constant phone calls about where she was. She was praised for her determination and behaviour at first but it became too much, she got overwhelmed and disappeared.
      • Cheryl has ended up in prison, Rosie is in care and the dad has broken down.


Delegates ask questions for panel discussion

  • Lucy Baldwin calls for better accountability in sentencing practice where parents and children are concerned.
  • Yvonne Rodgers agrees: we need to ensure all magistrates are consistent in the way parents and mothers are sentenced.
  • Question: is any work done with the police around arrests in front of children? Children report the distress and trauma when parents are arrested in their own homes.
  • Answer from Lucy Baldwin: Don’t think there’s a national strategy for it, only smaller localised initiatives.
  • Answer from audience member: PACT are working hard on best practice – e.g. not turning up in middle of night or when parents are about to take kids to school.


How children are affected by a parent’s imprisonment

Yvonne Rodgers of Barnardo’s talks about what the justice system does to children.

  • Children and young people of prisoners deserve the same chances as anyone else. Yet we know they have worse outcomes.
  • These are some of the most vulnerable children in our society. They are serving an unfair sentence.
  • Intervening early is better for the child and more cost-effective for society.

Why are we so focused on fixing what’s broken, rather than stopping things going wrong in the first place?

  • Having a mother in prison has serious, specific implications.
  • Mother and baby units reduce the trauma of separation but questions remain about whether they meet emotional and social needs of children, because it is a false environment.
  • Local authorities don’t know enough about this vulnerable group of children.
  • As long as parents are merely seen as criminals, they will not be getting the support they need to care for their children. And ultimately, it’s the children who will miss out.

Guidance on emotional needs of mothers and their children

Lucy Baldwin, criminology lecturer from De Montfort University, said intervention shouldn’t be where we start:

  • There shouldn’t be such a need for so many of us in this room. There shouldn’t be so much social injustice, so many foodbanks, so many women and especially women in prison.
  • It costs between £39,000 – £60,000 a year to keep a woman in prison.
  • Women are under greater pressure than men to live up to ideals of being non-violent, selfless, nurturing.
  • But how easy is it to be those things if you are a 16 year old mother, or living in a violent home?
  • To become a prisoner is almost by definition to become a bad mother. Dealing with those emotions is not easy.
  • Statistically ‘good’ mothers are less likely to end up in prison than ‘bad’ ones. Who decides that?
  • There’s a lack of understanding in courts and sentencing of how difficult some women’s worlds are.
  • Sentencers are meant to balance children’s needs and rights with appropriate sentencing. A women in prison for a child playing truancy is not serious enough to warrant a breach of those rights.

“My pessimistic prediction is that we will see more women in prison because of Transforming Rehabilitation.”


Introducing Re-Unite

One of the agencies working in the Re-Unite project is Anawim, a centre for women with multiple issues including offending, drugs, sex work and domestic abuse. It has worked with:

  • Over 100 women
  • 177 children
  • They claim none of the women they have helped has reoffended
  • They work in all but one prisons
  • Changes in prisons and officer shortages are challenges

Jackie Russell sets the scene

  • Women’s Breakout represents and supports 56 organisations nationwide that work with vulnerable women in holistic ways. Re-Unite is bringing together its member agencies today too.
  • Today is focused on mothers in the criminal justice system. But ultimately it’s about women, the lives they lead, the problems they face.
  • If a woman leaves prison and her child is in care, she only receives housing suitable for her. If she goes to social services, they say she can’t have her children back because she has no suitable housing. The Re-Unite approach supports these women.

One Comment on “LIVE BLOG: women in the criminal justice system – mothers too”

  1. Debs Wallace says:

    I really valued being a part of this event yesterday. It felt great to see so many inspirational people all getting together with the same aim of supporting women. Thank you to Women’s Breakout for organising a brilliant event, with excellent speakers and information. I am hoping we can carry the baton here in Basingstoke to raise awareness in our local community. We already have the support of our local Mayor and Mayoress of Basingstoke & Deane Borough Council, Councillor Roger Gardiner and his wife Tricia.


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