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A place to go like this

“Sentences should be trauma-informed … a lot of the time they don’t understand trauma and how it can inform every part of a client’s life.” This comment, made by an Advance Minerva keyworker during my research for the Report  A Place to Go Like This (published by  Advance aon 13 March), raises a challenging question: how can trauma-informed sentencing become a reality for every woman facing sentence, and her children?

The report was funded by London’s Violence Reduction Unit to inform improvements in the response to mothers involved in offending who are survivors of domestic abuse, and their children. 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, and we encourage other agencies to make changes.

Advance’s Minerva programme offers intensive wrap around support to thousands of women each year who are involved in offending, across 22 London boroughs and in partnership with statutory and non- statutory agencies in a whole system approach. Referrals are mainly post- sentence and now also through a police diversion pilot. The charity offers safe, gendered support and advocacy to help women address their often complex needs, with women’s centres in North and West London. For many of the women Advance supports, domestic abuse is a significant underlying factor in their offending. The impact on their children, particularly those whose mothers are sentenced to custody, can be devastating.

The National Probation Service has made significant efforts to ensure written pre- sentence reports are provided for as many women as possible so that circumstances like these are taken into account. However the emphasis on swift justice makes this difficult. There are understandable barriers to women disclosing information, particularly fear of the removal of children by social services.

Services like Minerva can help to break down those barriers, but the court process allows little time for this.

In the report we explore how systems changes could allow essential information gathering to be prioritised, enabling trauma informed sentencing decisions and facilitating earlier diversion where appropriate, with particular benefits for mothers and their children, and for those driven to offending through their experience of abuse. A commitment was made in London’s Blueprint on Women in Contact with the Criminal Justice System to explore the establishment of specialist women’s courts in London, and this should now be progressed.

Modelled on London’s specialist  domestic abuse courts, women’s specialist courts would operate as an end to end process, allowing the concentration of expertise and facilitating fuller information gathering about the whole family from the outset of proceedings. Child impact assessments, currently being developed for a pilot in Merseyside, are another important innovation that could help to ensure the best interests of the children of primary carers facing criminal proceedings are fully and separately taken into account at every stage.

Please read the report and let us know your views.

Katy Swaine Williams

 Katy Swaine Williams is Senior Programme Manager for the Prison Reform Trust’s Transforming Lives programme and Senior Researcher at the award- winning charity Advance.

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