Equipping Researchers to Adopt a Trauma-Informed Approach

We are pleased to announce the launch of a new resource, ‘Trauma-Informed Social Research: A Practical Guide’, written by Kerry Dowding, Research and Evaluation Officer with Fulfilling Lives South East Partnership.

This brief and accessible guide gives practical hints and tips on how to apply the principles of trauma-informed practice to research activities with vulnerable groups, notably those affected by multiple disadvantage. The guide contains interactive checklists for carrying out focus groups, one-to-one interviews, and conducting observations.

Who is this for and how should it be used?

The guide is suitable for evaluators, researchers (including peer researchers), service leads, commissioners, or anyone else who would like to conduct research with vulnerable groups. It can be used as a point of reference to help plan for and reflect on the research journey, making sure researchers have structures in place to support themselves and the participants throughout the process.

Why a trauma-informed approach?

We have found that people experiencing multiple disadvantage are often eager to share their experiences and contribute to learning and research to help bring about positive change in services. However, inviting people to talk about their experiences has the potential to be re-traumatising. A trauma-informed approach to research activities involves researchers establishing safety and trust with participants, allowing them to share openly and participate collaboratively.

How did it come about?

The guide combines the author’s specialist knowledge of research methods and an understanding of the importance of a trauma-informed approach gained through conducting co-produced research with people affected by multiple disadvantage.

During its development, the guide was shared in a working group attended by staff and volunteers with lived experience of multiple disadvantage as well as those with extensive experience of supporting this client group. The working group gave feedback and advice on the content and direction of the guide, and their contributions were invaluable. The guide was designed by Ben Pickersgill, Media and Communications Officer with Fulfilling Lives.

The view and download the guide, click here where you will be directed to our website.

Lewis Edwards, Learning and Impact Manager

Stopping the Prison Cycle for Women

In just over six years of client facing work, the Fulfilling Lives project has worked with a total of 69 women across the three project areas of Brighton & Hove, Eastbourne and Hastings, of a total caseload number of 118 clients. The Fulfilling Lives offer is a flexible one; a mixture of practical support to address immediate safety combined with psychosocial, trauma informed interventions to support behaviour change, and has had a hugely positive impact on the lives of many of the women with multiple and complex needs that we have worked with.

Sometimes the more interesting learning comes from exploring where things haven’t been successful however. In spite of the intensive and flexible support offer from FL, some individuals haven’t been able to make significant change in their lives and remain stuck in patterns of repeat offending. Work has remained focussed on immediate crisis and risk-led interventions, rather than on planned or preventative work to support individuals to break the cycle of reoffending.

The women on our caseload who are in contact with the criminal justice system have some of the most complex difficulties of any of the clients working with Fulfilling Lives. All have mental health diagnoses, including anxiety and depression, personality disorder and bipolar disorder, all use alcohol and drugs and all have experienced domestic violence and abuse.

These individuals are engaged in repeat cycles of offending, often driven by active addiction. They receive short custodial sentences and are regularly released as street homeless where the chaotic nature of their lives leads to breaching license conditions and being recalled to prison after only a short time in the community.

The majority of female offenders with complex needs are also victims; this does not, however, result in them receiving better coordinated support.

The majority of female offenders with complex needs are also victims; this does not, however, result in them receiving better coordinated support. It is widely accepted that women need a dedicated pathway of support that takes account of the multiple trauma experienced and their victim status; but there remains a shortage of trauma-informed, gender-specific interventions for women locally.

At Fulfilling Lives South East we have worked really effectively with local multi agency partners including CRC probation colleagues (soon to be National Probation Service), Brighton Women’s Centre, Oasis and others in coordinating creative and flexible support arrangements to maintain positive engagement with women experiencing multiple disadvantage in the community. However, much of the positive work achieved in the community can be interrupted by recalls to prison which interrupt housing and support plans in the community.

We have recent case studies which highlight how women are trapped in cyclical offending patterns often driven by mental distress and desperate cries for help. The offender journey here highlights how a woman supported by Fulfilling Lives experienced mental health crises in the community after leaving prison homeless 3 times in one year; a cycle which was only broken by identifying a suitable accommodation placement on release with high enough support to manage her mental health needs.

The Fulfilling Lives project is committed to systems change. However, in terms of affecting real change, the systemic issues which contribute to these patterns of behaviour are difficult to tackle at a local level alone.

We know that short sentences don’t contribute to recovery or stabilisation.

We know that short sentences don’t contribute to recovery or stabilisation. The solution must lie in taking a genuinely systemic approach in addressing the underlying issues which are driving women to offend.

We don’t need to seek the answers. Many of the recommendations outlined in the 2007 Corston report are still relevant and mostly still not implemented. We want to see more specialist women’s support in the community, more liaison and diversion schemes to divert women away from custody into support and sentencing reform with greater use of alternatives to custody and women’s community support services.

With these national changes in place the excellent work that is happening locally to coordinate multi agency case support in the community for all women experiencing multiple disadvantage can be embedded further and more lives can be turned around.

Author: Jo Rogers, Senior Manager, Fulfilling Lives South East Partnership

Joint Working: The Power of Collaboration

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, many services (statutory and third sector alike) stopped all face-to-face contact with service users and started working remotely. This shift in support was especially difficult for clients experiencing multiple and complex needs (MCN), including learning disabilities (LD), where the right type of communication is vital for understanding.

This article is about the importance of collaboration between services and an example of good practice when supporting women with MCN and LD through care proceedings.

We, at Fulfilling Lives South East (FLSE), together with Brighton & Hove Speak Out (BHSO) are currently working with the same mother, who has MCN and a LD. This mother’s child is subject to care proceedings and is currently living in foster care. This collaboration has highlighted some obstacles in the system for the mother from a front-line perspective, as well as advocacy point of view.

The FLSE Women’s Specialist Worker and BHSO Advocate agreed that it was much harder to build a trusting relationship remotely, and that effective communication was impaired

Whilst FLSE continued face-to-face support throughout the pandemic; the BHSO Advocate and Specialist Adult Social Worker were only able to offer remote support. When reflecting together, the FLSE Women’s Specialist Worker and BHSO Advocate agreed that it was much harder to build a trusting relationship remotely, and that effective communication was impaired. In some instances, the client’s mistrust of professionals and their misunderstanding of her and her partners’ behaviour, led to them making assumptions, which the FL Women’s Specialist Worker needed to challenge.

During the client’s pregnancy and post-birth, all Children’s Services meetings were held using video-conference facilities. Court hearings, parenting assessments and support, were also remote during this period. Children’s Services enabled digital access for some of the meetings at their premises; at other times the FL Women’s Specialist Worker had to provide equipment in alternative locations. Where the physical equipment was available, the FLSE Women’s Specialist Worker supported the client to use the technology, and to understand, communicate, and regulate their emotions. The BHSO Advocate was able to support the understanding of information before and after each meeting and feed the client’s voice back into the process. Without FLSE’s support, the client risked complete exclusion from the care proceedings.

Unfortunately, digital inclusion does not always reach the most marginalised people, including people experiencing MCN. The push for digital inclusion when providing essential services, for example health care appointments, adult social care support and court proceedings, has demonstrated just how many vulnerable adults do not have easy access to laptops and the internet. Even when digital access is available, communication via this method offers challenges to all participants. Non-verbal communication is much harder to recognise, multiple voices can be hard to follow, and a large number of participants can be intimidating. This type of communication is additionally difficult for those with a LD who have additional communication and processing needs and requirements.  With the parenting assessment and support also being conducted on-line, this again creates a further barrier for those with MCN.

FLSE would like to call for a person-centred approach for key meetings, to enable professionals to meet clients in a safe way to reduce the impact of exclusion and reduce the infliction of further trauma

FLSE would like to call for a person-centred approach for key meetings, to enable professionals to meet clients in a safe way to reduce the impact of exclusion and reduce the infliction of further trauma. In this case, the Local Authority applied for the child to be removed from the mother’s care at birth. The FLSE Women’s Specialist Worker supported the mother at hospital just after her birth, to make sure her voice was heard in meetings, medical exams and at the virtual court hearing. As the mother had a diagnosis of LD, she had access to a Specialist Adult Social Worker who was able to arrange this support and other reasonable adjustments whilst she was on the ward. Without this collaboration between the Local Authority, NHS and FLSE, the event of having a child removed at birth would have been even more traumatic for the mother.

When reflecting with BHSO, we agreed that the child protection process is very child focused – and rightly so. However, we would like to see an improved understanding and implementation of the communication and support needs of parents with LD, at the start of Local Authority interventions. Easy read documentation of the processes, key reports and assessments are rarely made available by children’s professionals, yet they are essential for the vast majority of MCN and LD mothers, as is, allowing additional time for processing and understanding information. Advocacy at the earliest opportunity is also essential within the tight child timescales, along with referral to adult services and other 3rd party support as needed.

FLSE and BHSO, would also like to see specialist support for parents with LD going through child protection and care proceedings. This includes conducting parenting assessments in a more LD friendly way, focussing on what parents can achieve, rather than just their struggles. Where support needs are identified, commissioners should ensure that services are available and accessible. This includes longer-term parenting support options, (such as Shared Lives- a scheme that matches someone with care needs to an approved carer), relationship safety support and awareness, and a holistic approach as provided by FLSE.

The right support and a trauma informed approach with the time and care put in at early stages can have a lasting positive effect on their recovery and reduce the likelihood of another pregnancy

We know that women who are going through child protection processes and care proceedings are likely to be experiencing MCN and LD. These parents often face increased stigma, and without advocacy to challenge professional behaviours, this will continue to exacerbate harm. However, the right support and a trauma informed approach with the time and care put in at early stages can have a lasting positive effect on their recovery and reduce the likelihood of another pregnancy.

Throughout our client’s journey and together with BHSO, peer support between the FL Women’s Specialist Worker and BHSO Advocate was appreciated and this collaboration has shown that a flexible and trauma informed approach can lead to positive relationships, not only for organisations but most importantly for the wellbeing of the mother.

Authors: Michaela Rossman, Gemma Harfleet & Nicola Johnson