Women’s charity breaking stigma of criminal justice system

A women’s charity which has recently seen a new hub established in Chelmsford seeks to advocate for vulnerable women involved with the criminal justice system, with keyworkers describing being approached “thick and fast” by those in need within the county.

Advance Advocacy and Non Violence Community Education, known as Advance, was founded in 1998 by Bear Montique and Beryl Foster. The charity was set up in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham as a direct result of women’s organisations in the area joining with local criminal justice and statutory agencies in response to the fact that out of over 2,000 domestic abuse incidents reported in the borough in 1996, there were only 10 convictions.

Over the past 25 years, through building a body of research, Advance uncovered a noticeable pattern of women who had experienced violence or abuse becoming involved in the criminal justice system for largely petty crimes.

Further to this, with a lack of the right support, these women were far more likely to re-offend and develop problems regarding financial management, housing, custody of children and spiralling addiction issues.

Instead, Advance began to adopt the form of a neutral space in which women who were facing criminal convictions or legal action could be connected with keyworkers from various agencies in order to be listened to and understood.

After subsequent expansions of the charity saw branches opened across the capital and in Kent, Herts, Beds, Hampshire and the Thames Valley, a light was quickly shone on the demand for its services in Essex, too.

Shannon Wells, Advance’s services manager for Essex, has witnessed the charity’s national expansion over the last three years. She has played an instrumental role in helping to deliver tailored support to women who require it from the nine separate hubs across the county.

She said: “The Advance ethos is to draw women away from probation offices, as they’re not very trauma-informed environments. They’re accessed by male offenders, women can’t attend with their children, and if a woman can’t attend a probation meeting for reasons related to these she’s effectively sanctioned for that.

“Women on probation will often be referred to us, and in turn, we’re put in charge of their community rehabilitation.”

This rehabilitation falls into seven categories which Shannon said cover “every aspect of life” once a woman leaves a violent or abusive environment. These include emotional well-being, family liaison, financial management, education and employment, lifestyle and associates (if a woman has been involved in gang activity), recovery from substance misuse and social inclusion.

“Advance was formed because the criminal justice was made by men, for men,” she said. “Women seem to get far harsher sentences for much more petty crimes. I think in some ways it’s against the accepted social construct for a woman to commit a violent offence.

“It’s out of character, and so she is punished more than accordingly. Around 87 per cent of women in custody have had significant past trauma, which you can pick apart and see a pattern emerge.

“A woman may only sentenced to 18 months in prison, but she could lose her home, her children and her job. And then she’ll be sent to a probation office, where she may be placed with a male probation officer who could enforce things not knowing that she’s possibly facing all of this past trauma. It’s really triggering, and there’s no way for her to potentially break that cycle of re-offending.

“That’s where we step in and try to resolve those needs, make sure she’s got that counselling in place; we can appeal any council’s decision to remove her property and just try to get her on the straight and narrow.”

Shannon said that Advance prides itself on acting as a women’s advocate and giving a voice to those who are struggling to navigate difficult circumstances. By connecting referred women to official providers of support in the form of psychotherapy and counselling, social housing associations or groups such as Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous, the charity aims to accompany each woman during every step towards rebuilding their life.

Speaking to LDRS, Saira Chaudhary, a keyworker for Advance in Essex, told Alex’s (not her real name) story. Alex had left her previous accommodation as a result of living with an abusive partner and had struggled to engage with external services due to mental ill-health.

Saira was assigned as Alex’s case worker, and at first, acted as a mediator between Alex and her probation officer by allotting time to regular phone calls which gradually became face-to-face meetings with both Saira and the probation service.

With the help of Saira and Advance, Alex was able to manage outstanding debts, apply for a council tax reduction scheme, reclaim personal belongings from her former residence and complete a counselling course, which Saira said she “engaged with and liked so much” that it led her to pursue further therapy.

Another way in which Advance assists with rehabilitation is through commissioning experts from other charities, such as a housing officer with over 40 years’ experience from Safer Places, an organisation which campaigns against domestic abuse and gender-based violence.

Shannon said that in many cases passed onto Advance, women are categorised by their local council as having made themselves intentionally homeless after fleeing from an unsafe or abusive situation. However, once a dialogue is opened between an authority and a charity such as Advance or Safer Places, “not so many questions are asked, and councils are generally quite accepting”.

Although this is no ‘quick fix’ due to the current well-documented lack of social housing and temporary accommodation across the country, it initiates a process into which “every woman is entitled” to be entered into.

Since beginning work for Advance during the Covid-19 pandemic, Shannon said the charity is “still fighting an up-hill battle of encouraging women to meet (keyworkers) face-to-face”.

“We need to see our women in person because how else can we know that they are safe? At a hub, we can organise food bank deliveries or can get hold of sanitary products, or women can leave with some clothes,” she said.

“It’s difficult when a lot of women who come to us have social anxiety, and they’ve got more ‘serious’ services breathing down their necks. But we see any engagement as better than none.”

When contemplating how vital Advance’s services are, no testimony is more powerful than one from a woman who has benefited directly from the support she has received. Polly (not her real name) said: “My anxiety was really building up before my call with my keyworker, but she made it so much easier than I expected, and I could tell that she genuinely cared about me and wanted to help.

“I’m so thankful to have had such a lovely introduction to Advance’s services and the support they offer.

“I told my keyworker that I didn’t think she and her colleagues get enough praise or recognition for the seeds they plant – they may grow slowly, but they’re planting them, and that’s what is important.”

At the time of Shannon and Saira speaking to LDRS in December, Advance had just celebrated its 25-year anniversary. Shannon said the charity’s main aspiration is to change the public’s perception of women involved in the criminal justice system, as well as changing how the system works from the inside.

“We want to chip away at current policies, hold important conversations, be trauma-informed and use appropriate language.

“Advance wants to help women take back ownership of their lives, and continue to empower them. In an ideal world, although we’re a long way off, we would help to divert women from prison entirely.

“A lot needs to change, but it’s moving in the right direction.”

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Emma Doyle

Local Democracy Reporter