Many of Changing Lives Women’s Services provide specialist support to women and girls with vulnerabilities including domestic abuse, sexual exploitation and criminal justice. However, regardless of the issue which leads women to our projects, there is one overwhelmingly common experience we encounter time and again – traumatisation emanating from childhood abuse.
The way trauma is experienced is specific to gender. Dr Stephanie Covington explains that as children, both boys and girls may experience abuse, but these experiences differ as they move into adolescence. For teenage boys risk of further victimisation comes from strangers – other young men, gangs, police. For teenage girls, risk is overwhelmingly from men they say they love and believe love them. This continues into adulthood and we also know from the work of Zoe Lodrick and others that this risk is cumulative and makes further victimisation much more likely.
“The way trauma is experienced is specific to gender”
When we asked our service users recently about their experiences of domestic abuse, their accounts mirrored the research. Many recounted that their first experience was witnessing as children; and the next was their first intimate relationship. It is also striking that so few women described domestic abuse in terms of physical harm; they talked about the impact on their self-worth, managing intense emotions and decision-making.
Needless to say all too often the consequences are manifested in addiction, homelessness, offending, poor mental health – and all too often women come to the attention of services because of concerns around anti-social behaviours rather than vulnerabilities.
This shift from victim to perpetrator is so palpable in the experience of Joanne who engaged with our Women’s Services in Newcastle 2 years ago. Joanne is just 21 and experienced sexual abuse from her father and brother as a child. She has experience of the care system and it is sadly predictable that this transferred to a series of secure units, YOIs and prison. When we first met Joanne she appeared to be bouncing around a large number of services presenting in a recurring cycle of crises. It was clear that there was little progress by way of recovery or sustainable change within the existing system of support and control.
“So few women described domestic abuse in terms of physical harm; they talked about the impact on their self-worth, managing intense emotions and decision-making.”
We decided to engage Joanne with a different approach within the context of understanding trauma. Everything we know about trauma for women and girls tells us that a trusted relationship based on empathy, boundaries and consistency is key. This suggests that the team of professionals around Joanne may be problematic. Rather than reacting to the ongoing crises, our workers engaged with her using therapeutic techniques right from the start, and continued with this approach in every meeting whether on the streets or in prison – thereby turning Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ on its head.
Joanne has remained out of prison since August 2014, the longest time since she was 13 years old. She has her own flat, a puppy, and attends therapeutic group work. Who knows what life holds for Joanne now, but there is every indication that the life trajectory set out for her as a child is changing course. Understanding Trauma is now core training across all Changing Lives services and is the central principle behind every service we offer.