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Women's Outreach Project

Circle were granted funding by the Big Lottery Fund to deliver the ‘Women’s Outreach Team’ (WOT), to provide an intensive support service for women given non-custodial sentences, such as Community Payback Orders (CPOs), to be supported to fulfil the orders and avoid the damaging impact of custody on women, children and communities. The service was set up in partnership with Addictions Support & Counselling (ASC), a service provider with experience of working in the criminal justice system. Their role, alongside Circle, was to provide intensive outreach support addressing health, addictions, relationships, parenting and other issues to ensure that women are rehabilitated.

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At the time of writing, there are just over 370 women in prisons in Scotland. The Commission on Women Offenders made recommendations in 2012 to improve outcomes for women in the criminal justice system. These included establishing community justice centres offering a one-stop support network, mentoring services to support women’s compliance with court orders, alternatives to remand, and replacing HMP & YOI Cornton Vale with a smaller, specialist prison for women who are serving long-term sentences and present a significant risk to the public (Prison Reform Trust, 2017).

In Scotland, the average annual cost per prison place is £35,325 (Sturge, 2018). Research has highlighted the complex histories of abuse and trauma that women in the criminal justice system have had, and often continue to endure (Ministry of Justice, 2018; Barry and McIvor, 2008). Addiction issues often manifest to deal with underlying mental health problems (Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland, 2014). Women have high levels of self-harm and there is a call for women in prison who do this to be treated by an external agency (Kottler et al. 2018).

The Women’s Outreach Team (WOT) is a partnership between Circle and Addictions Support & Counselling.

They set out to work primarily with mothers and their families to provide a whole family approach to women’s rehabilitation.  A key aspect of this service that makes it different from others is that both ASC and Circle provide support in the homes of the individuals or in an appropriate community venue, with a particular focus on linking them to relevant services when ready.

The service has two Family Outreach Workers, one Addictions Counsellor, and a half-time Project Manager. Referrals are made through Criminal Justice Social Work colleagues and include consultation with G4S (providers of electronic monitoring) where relevant; although an emphasis is placed on the voluntary nature of engagement with the service in light of the person-centred approach both Circle and ASC adopt.

Initial assessment for suitability of the service takes place within a two-week period, and a comprehensive assessment over six weeks. Assessment includes development of a family support plan and a recovery plan. This involves meeting the women in their homes, understanding their needs as they describe them, meeting with other family members, and making a professional assessment of whole family support and recovery/wellbeing needs.

Where the main focus is for whole family support, the person responsible for assessment is the Family Support Worker. Where the main focus is substance misuse and/or mental health needs, the person responsible for the assessment will be the Addictions Counsellor. Where the need is for both types of provision, a joint home visit is conducted and structured to suit the individual, i.e. discuss both aspects of the service, spend some time discussing family-based support, and distinct time around recovery needs.

The intervention is based on the needs of the women, so it might initially be daily or two to three times a week. From the outset the service had predicted that most women will engage for a year with some interventions lasting up to 18 months, particularly where ‘new’ crises or changes are identified, e.g. sudden bereavement of a family member, or the birth of a child.The support offered is informed by knowledgeable and experienced practitioners who understand the impacts of mental health, substance use, trauma, domestic abuse and child protection, as well as child development. Family work provides both practical and emotional support not only to the women, but also to the children and even wider family members.

An independent evaluation in 2018 found that, of the women supported:

  • 33 women (94%) had not re-offended and no one had returned to prison. 
  • 23 women (66%) had made substantial progress with the support of the service.
  • 10 cases (37%) were closed with positive conclusions, with the women in stable housing, no longer taking substances and managing their finances better;
  • 3 were no longer with their abusive partner and one had got a job;
  • 5 had stopped engaging but had been supported into stable housing and 2 into volunteering, showing that non-engagement might not always be for negative reasons.

For the 8 currently active cases, 5 have reduced their substance misuse and 3 have been connected to mental health support and left their abusive partners.

The service also directly supported 49 children, ranging from taking them on family days away to more intensive support.

The service is not just helping women to fulfil their Community Sentences but is also crucially helping to build self-worth, confidence and work towards a better future, supporting them and their children.

This service is shown to be cost effective and worth investing in. It is helping women into stable housing, to get away from abusive partners, deal with past trauma and abuse, access mental health provision and move away from addiction. This service is life-changing for the women, their children and the wider family and, it could also be said, for the communities they come from.

The main challenge for staff is connecting women to appropriate support for their mental health issues. Staff felt that there could be more support in the community.

Poverty – the realities of the women’s lives; what they are living in; and what they are struggling to live on, including issues with Universal Credit and people not getting any money for weeks.

‘Cultural barriers’ were discussed: individual practitioners from other services not always taking their assessment of someone’s progress seriously and being resistant to allowing the women to move on from the past.

GDPR had created additional barriers, with the workers no longer able to advocate on someone’s behalf in the way they had previously. 

Workers spoke about the current systems failing, for example waiting 45 minutes on the phone to deal with a child benefit claim.

There is a lack of support in the community, and psychiatry waiting lists can mean that an assessment is not ‘real’, with the women attending appointments and seeming ‘fine’ at the time.

Professional pessimism of other services and the lack of respect shown is a significant barrier. It was noted that when the workers sometimes don’t immediately show their badge they are treated poorly too.

Workers spoke about having to be resilient when ‘new partners’ for some meant that the ‘good work came undone because of another abusive man’.

Workers were concerned that some GPs seemed to be too quick to hand out medication, rather than prescribing alternatives.

Some of the women are very vulnerable and become a target for others, for example using their flat to drink or take drugs, and then they get hassle from the police.

Most of the women have been suicidal at some point and staff spoke openly about how difficult this is.

The rurality of this project in itself is a challenge: getting people bus passes difficult, although it was pointed out that if someone is on benefits this should really come as standard.

Staff pointed out that many of the women would not be able to make the appointments set, especially by the DWP in Glasgow and that these challenges should be raised at a higher level to be reviewed. 

Key Lessons

  • Support is required for a year for positive outcomes to be reached.
  • The service supports women and children who often live rurally and have limited disposable income to spend on public transport. This is probably one of the key reasons why this service is successful.
  • The practical support to help with housing and stability, to connect people with support to deal with past and ongoing abuse, to leave abusive partners, and to open up about underlying reasons for addiction issues, takes time and effort to build trust.
  • Getting to know the women, building trust, emphasising and supporting their role as mothers, also helped the women to reinforce a positive identity and to open up about underlying issues, and in turn connect to specialised support.
  • The service has helped the women be heard and understood at social work meetings, to not get angry, and to work alongside others. They helped the women to go to appointments, to get access to mental health provision, to forgive themselves for the past and to be themselves in the now.
  • This service is solution-focused and helps the women to look to - and be hopeful about - the future: an important counterpoint to other services, where it was reported that this is not always the case and they are dragged back continually to the past.

Without support from the service, the women believe they would have offended, committed suicide or lost hope. This has helped to change lives, not only for the women but also for their children, whether directly or indirectly.

“X even just appeared at my door one day. He said that I didn’t need to let him in and I let him in and I was so embarrassed… I think X saved my life. He said, the best thing you can do, is just be yourself that is when I can help you, when I can see you and help you.” (1)

“Without her, I wouldn’t be here. I was suicidal. That is why I ended up getting their support, because of my mental health issues and I had stopped taking my tablets.” (9)

“When you met me I had almost died, my life was falling to bits and I was so ashamed. I felt like I was taking two steps forward and ten back. This time I have managed to jump ahead… I think I had lost confidence in the relationship with myself before. I had lost who I was, but now I am starting to like myself again.” (1, two years on)

Want to find out more?

Quensley Mascarenhas   



18 West Pilton Park



Tel: 0131 552 0305

Fax: 0131 551 3976