Stonewater and Fulfilling Lives South East- Supporting Women experiencing Multiple Disadvantage in Refuge

In this blog we reflect on how effective partnership working can support new outcomes.

Stonewater and Fulfilling Lives South East (FLSE)

In 2021 Stonewater was awarded the new contract to provide refuge accommodation for women and children experiencing domestic abuse in Brighton and Hove

Stonewater is:

“…a leading social housing provider, with a mission to deliver good quality, affordable homes to people who need them most. We manage around 34,500 homes in England for over 76,000 customers, including affordable properties for general rent, shared ownership and sale, alongside specialist accommodation such as retirement and supported living schemes for older and vulnerable people, domestic abuse refuges, a dedicated LGBTQ+ Safe Space, and young people’s foyers.”


The FLSE project, hosted by BHT Sussex, is one of 12 partnerships funded by the National Lottery Community Fund to provide intensive support for people experiencing multiple and complex needs (MCN), involve people with lived experience at all levels and challenge and change systems that negatively affect people facing MCN. While this eight-year project will soon be coming to an end, we recognised the value of collaborating with Stonewater.

At FLSE, we were keen to collaborate with the Stonewater team as we saw a real opportunity, when they were awarded the new refuge contract, to work together to share our learning of working in a trauma-informed way with women facing MCN and domestic abuse to help this particular group of women to better access and sustain their stay in refuge.

The importance of defining MCN or multiple disadvantage

There is much disagreement in this sector about the merits of having a unified definition of MCN or multiple disadvantage. There are concerns in some quarters around the negative effects of labelling on people experiencing multiple disadvantage. At FLSE we understand and respect this viewpoint. However, from eight years of learning, when it comes to the design and commissioning of services for this client group, we know that there is more risk in not naming multiple disadvantage than providing a clear definition. We feel this is important so that services are designed with the specific needs of this group, who are often excluded from services, in mind. For women experiencing intersecting needs including homelessness, mental ill health, substance or alcohol use, repeat contact with the criminal justice system and the repeat removal of children, when domestic abuse is added to this complex array of issues, it is vital that services are equipped to work with these women, who will all have experienced trauma and require an appropriate response.

Recently, FLSE worked alongside the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner’s Office that led on the Needs Assessment – a requirement of the DA Bill – to assess the need for safe accommodation and support for victims/survivors of domestic abuse across Sussex. We coproduced a written submission detailing the specific needs of women fleeing domestic abuse using case examples from our client-facing work. We were delighted to read in the final Pan-Sussex Strategy for Safe Accommodation and Support for Victims/Survivors of Domestic Abuse that FLSE’s definition of multiple disadvantage was included and responsive to multiple disadvantages’ was cited as a key priority in the Strategy. We recommend that all agencies in Sussex use this definition when commissioning or designing domestic abuse services and safe accommodation options:

Multiple Complex Needs (MCN) has a variety of meanings in services and third sector organisations, depending on the needs of the client group. In general, MCN includes people on the edges of society who are often excluded from or who cannot access who is experiencing 3 out of 4 of the following:

What we did together

The FLSE team and Stonewater managers discussed ways we could work together to support improved outcomes for women with MCN.

In April and May 2022 the FLSE team delivered two training sessions for refuge staff. The first session focussed on complex trauma; its causes and how it manifests in behaviours and tools to manage potentially difficult situations and was informed by the refuge team feedback in a pre-training survey.

The second session focussed on deepening conversations around:

  • The window of tolerance.
  • Dissociation – being the most misunderstood responses and the most common in women and children experiencing domestic abuse and how to recognise and work with it.
  • Practising some grounding techniques and tools.
  • The working together tool.
  • Further reading and training that staff can access.


Following the two training sessions, the Stonewater refuge team felt they had a better understanding of:

  • The meaning of MCN.
  • What women experiencing MCN and domestic abuse might need.
  • Different trauma-related responses.
  • How to take a different approach to clients affected by alcohol and substances, including ways to organise a multi-agency meeting involving clients.
  • A number of staff reported feeling confident creating and using a Working Agreement.
  • All staff reported that they felt ‘completely comfortable’ now with using grounding techniques.

The Stonewater team felt that the collaboration and sharing learning had a positive impact on their work, with one staff member sharing:

“The training was absolutely excellent, I felt as though I learnt a lot and I have already used the working together agreement and the window of tolerance work sheets in my case work sessions”.

Looking to the future

As FLSE is now reaching the final stage of the project, we are proud to know that Stonewater will continue influencing the system to make refuge accommodation more accessible to, and impactful for, women experiencing MCN.

Sandra Sylvester from the FLSE team reflected that “it is so positive to see what can be achieved when working in a strengths-based way with a partner such as Stonewater, who have been open to learning from our 8 years’ experience to develop the tools they need to successfully accommodate women with complex intersecting needs, but also how to give the amazing staff the space to reflect on the difficult work and to provide opportunities to attend relevant training. It has been an honour to be part of this project.”

Wendy Sheehan from Stonewater, shared how enthusiastic the staff were to attend the two training sessions and how they really appreciated them being in person.

“The support and training that the Refuge team have received from Fulfilling Lives has been invaluable. The training was tailored to the specific needs of the team and was based on real life case studies.  The feedback from the team has been extremely positive and has improved their confidence with supporting women with MCN’s.  This will ensure that we can support more women with MCN a group that is often excluded from accessing many refuge services.”

Sarah Pugh, also from Stonewater, is in the process of developing the organisation’s training package and is using the learning from the training and partnership to inform the content of this framework.

“Refuge has to be more than just bricks and mortar and the practical and therapeutic support survivors, including children, receive is crucial to their recovery.   Stonewater are dedicated to ensuring that refuge staff have the opportunity for continual professional development and are equipped with specialist knowledge and confidence to support the multiple and complex needs that residents present with.  The feedback from staff who attended this training is overwhelmingly positive and has whet their appetite for more!  Learning in the field of domestic abuse and its radiating impact on all aspects of its survivors lives is continuous and we’re working on a Domestic Abuse training plan for all Stonewater employees, incorporating what we’ve learnt so far and utilising all the resources you have provided.  Knowledge is power, and effective training results in knowledgeable, skilled staff resulting in improved outcomes for survivors.   Thank you Fulfilling Lives, for your time and energy!”


Sandra Sylvester, Systems Change Officer

Rebecca Rieley, Systems Change Lead

For further information about Fulfilling Lives work in this area, please contact:

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Training for future Social Workers

Positive Partnerships towards a Trauma-Informed Workforce

In autumn 2020, the Fulfilling Lives South East (FLSE) Area Lead, together with the Systems Change Officer reached out to Lucy Basterra, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Brighton, to offer training sessions around working with people experiencing multiple and complex needs (MCN) and experiences of repeat child protection processes. The idea was to influence social workers’ attitudes and behaviours before they start practising social work as their profession.

Issues faced

FLSE understands that Social Workers play a key role in providing support to people experiencing multiple disadvantages and MCN. Following our research and front line experience, we developed a Manifesto for Change, with emerging themes and commitments. One of which is about supporting women through repeat removals of children. Our commitment states: For women with MCN to not suffer stigmatising practice (e.g. from antenatal and post-natal healthcare providers, courts, police, GP and Social Services).

In our previous blogs on this theme, we have explored the gaps women with multiple and complex needs often fall through and the issues that arise when the working practices of social services don’t respond flexibly and creatively to these needs.

Women often feel disempowered throughout the process of working with social services, not understanding their rights or having a firm grasp of what is happening at each stage. Many women have also had negative experiences of social services in the past, often as children themselves, leading to a distrust and disengagement from services. Our clients have reported that they felt like passive recipients of a process that is making permanent decisions about their own lives and those of their children. 

Quote from our client

“I feel like everything is going to come crashing down around me.  I feel I haven’t been given enough time to turn my life around it’s just not fair. How can I be expected to just stop using and attend all these appointments without any period of lapse?  I’m not perfect.” 

What we did

Our partnership with the University of Brighton, has provided us with a platform to reach future social workers and provide an enhanced understanding of multiple disadvantage, encouraging the students to consider the intersecting issues faced by their future clients and to respond in ways that are adaptive to the complex needs and informed by experiences of trauma.

FLSE delivered two guest lectures on the subject of ‘Trauma Informed Practice (TIP) and working with people experiencing multiple and complex needs (MCN)’ in November 2020 and January 2021. These sessions were co-produced with front line staff, project consultants, volunteers, experts by experience, the learning and impact team as well as the systems change team. Following their success, FLSE were invited to deliver the lectures again to the next year’s cohort of students. In January and February 2022, two guest lectures were held, one online and one in-person, which again received overwhelmingly positive feedback, highlighting the importance of teaching students about trauma informed practices, and working with people experiencing MCN.

Student feedback on the training sessions

I found this session really useful and was really comfortable to engage with the facilitators. I found this session to be a safe place to ask questions, be curious and think outside my box”.

I found the information provided about MCN and trauma very useful and will definitely look more into this and take it into the future. Also information around women and repeated pregnancies interesting, as it was topic I was debating recently”.

I really enjoyed the session, especially the way that each breakout group had an assigned practitioner as it allowed for a detailed group discussion. I was also really impressed with the passion each of the workers showed”.

The practice examples were really interesting, and I learnt some important skills for building relationships with service users who have experienced trauma”.

The need for trauma informed practice and unconditional positive regard for the client. Be strength and person focused. Work as part of a team around the person and celebrate small wins for the client. The need for long term approach”.

“I have learnt about the importance of considering language used (terms such as label) and how this can impact on the clients we work with.  Thus, learnt to challenge the use of such terms”.

“Thank you for the training. I am working with a mum who has had 2 children removed and has a learning disability, ADHD and poor mental health. I have often had tense, difficult conversations with her, and I think I may have been dismissive at times. Your presentation has opened my eyes and made me realise what she has gone through.  I feel better able to support her and her children. Thank you”!

“In social work we focus on the children and keep them at the centre of our practice.  This has helped me consider the wider impact on the parents”.

Feedback from Lucy Basterra, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Brighton

“It has been a pleasure collaborating with the Fulfilling Lives team, and it is clear from the feedback that the team’s expertise and passion has made a positive impact on students’ learning.  From my perspective, as a lecturer in social work with a practice background in working with people experiencing multiple disadvantages, it is vital that we bring the voices of an often-marginalised group of people into the teaching and training of social workers.  Fulfilling Lives were able to do this by putting together a session which kept service users at the heart of the content, while also offering expert knowledge from a practitioner perspective.  Linking the themes that were covered with broader concepts of trauma-informed care means that the learning is applicable to any setting our students go on to practice in. The resources and case studies that Fulfilling Lives have shared will continue to be put to good use across our programmes where applicable and will add depth and insight into the experiences of people with complex needs as well as the practice tools and approaches best-placed to support practitioners in their work”.

Reflections from the facilitators

Participating as a facilitator in the training as a volunteer with FL has been an invaluable experience that I am proud I was part of. An important part of healing and growing is the ability to use past experiences, good and bad ones, in order to help and support others, but that’s not always easy. I thought taking part in this training would help me gain some confidence and trust in myself.  I’m really grateful I got to do that in a very professional and human environment, working alongside staff members while being supported step by step.

I think the training was a highlight for everybody involved, and it was great to read the feedback left by students, it made me realise what a great achievement to have been part of shaping, through our efforts, a next generation of a trauma-informed social workers”. – Linda, FL Volunteer

As a member of the Service User Involvement team with lived experience of MCN it has been extremely rewarding to play a role in the development and delivery of training for social work students. In addition, mentoring volunteers to develop new skills they are interested in, and working together on them achieving each step to get to where they want to be, is a part of my role I feel really privileged to be doing.

Linda has worked with Fulfilling Lives as a dedicated volunteer for a year and a half and seeing her get to the stage of presenting slides in training to a room of people is testament to how hard she has worked. People with lived experience can bring a unique and valuable insight to our work, but beyond that learn and bring skills that have really supported our project in achieving its own goals. I would like to thank the volunteer involved for being part of our team and congratulate her on her achievements.

This training has been a great example of co-production in action. Bringing together the expertise of frontline staff, diverse lived experience voices, and knowledge from our systems change work. It’s great to hear the feedback that the training was valuable to the students.” – Vikki, FL Engagement and Coproduction Worker


One of the main objectives of Fulfilling Lives nationally and locally is to work in partnership with organisations and institutions to nurture system change to help with the development of accessible, responsive, flexible and coordinated approaches for those with the most complex needs.

We are conscious that social workers and social work students are key to how social services are being delivered and perceived from a service user point of view. We are keen to help develop skills and approaches for future professionals.

The positive impact of the collaboration between FLSE and the University of Brighton has resulted in a commitment to continued use of Fulfilling Lives resources on MCN, Trauma and the repeat removal of children into care. Having these key resources being integrated into educating our future workforce is a legacy we are proud of and shows the importance of collaboration. 


Eve McCallam, Systems Change Officer

For further information about Fulfilling Lives work in this area, please contact:

Systems Change Officer

Rebecca Rieley, Systems Change Lead:  

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Building inclusive goals in Sussex  

Engaging in the development of a Pan-Sussex Strategy for Domestic Abuse Accommodation and Support

Setting the scene

Part 4 of the Domestic Abuse Act, which achieved royal assent in April 2021, placed a new statuatory duty on local authorities to assess the need and commission support to victims of domestic abuse (DA) and their children in safe accommodation services in their areas. Local Authorities were required to conduct a local needs assessment and prepare and publish a strategy for the provision of such support, and to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of this strategy.

At Fulfilling Lives South East (FLSE), we know that women who have multiple and complex needs (MCN) are disproportionately affected by DA yet are often felt to be the most challenging to reach for consultation activity and service design and as such, are most at risk of not having their voices heard and needs met. This is a group that services most struggle to build trusting relationships with, and as a result often fail to provide appropriate, person-centred, empathetic support. This is why FLSE is passionate about sharing these women’s voices through coproduction.

What we did

In August 2021, FLSE submitted a report to the Sussex Local Authority Project Team in the Office of Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner (OSPCC), which focused on the needs of women with MCN, to support the development of the Brighton and Hove City Council, East Sussex County Council and West Sussex County Councils, Pan Sussex Accommodation Based Support Needs Assessment. When writing this report, we adopted a co-produced approach by including staff and volunteers with lived experience of complex needs and domestic abuse in the process, including attending and participating in planning meetings, in-depth research of our case study database and in writing the final report. The evidence presented was gathered from our client work and FLSE volunteers and staff to express both the needs of this group of women as well as their reflections on how the wider housing and support system can be developed.

Members of the FLSE team also attended an online market engagement event to consult on specialist refuge accommodation for those with MCN, hosted by East and West Sussex County Councils. We reflected on the needs of women with MCN who experience domestic abuse and facilitated discussions on the various operating models for refuge provision and the factors that need to be considered when designing these services.

Upon the release of the draft Pan-Sussex strategy for domestic abuse accommodation and support in October 2021, the FLSE project group presented a subsequent report to the OSPCC, to support their public consultation. This expressed our impressions of the draft strategy, identifying what we were pleased to see and areas for improvement. Project group members also completed the online survey conducted by the County Councils to share feedback on behalf of our organisation.

Measuring our Impact

Within our contribution to the Sussex needs assessment, FLSE made a specific recommendation for women with MCN to be named and considered in the strategy. We are delighted to see ‘Responsive to Multiple Disadvantage’ listed as one of six key strategic priorities in the finalised strategy published in January 2022. This priority establishes the need for specialist provision to support victim/survivors with MCN, and makes recommendations for Sussex local authorities, specialist domestic abuse accommodation providers and support services to holistically support those with MCN, whilst ensuring accessibility of services

We also raised concerns around limited and unsuitable move-on options for victims/survivors with MCN. We highlighted the benefits of adopting a ‘Housing First’ model paired with specialist DA wrap-around support, in ensuring accommodation is appropriate to MCN and simultaneously provides a long-term housing solution. As a result, the strategy commits to exploring accommodation and support options appropriate for the needs of survivors with MCN including short-term respite facilities, specialist housing, move-on pathways, and long-term floating support.

Reflections and Recommendations

Engaging and consulting in the development of the Pan-Sussex strategy for domestic abuse accommodation and support provided space for FLSE to have an open channel with local commissioners to share our learning and support the commissioning teams to engage with discussions about the needs of those who experience domestic abuse as one of several complex and intersecting needs. We believe that this was best achieved by giving prominence to the voice of those with lived experience:

‘’The contribution and time invested by the team in providing Sussex with the lived experience work demonstrated to us and further strengthened the importance of ensuring better support is provided to survivors with MCN…by being given the opportunity to corroborate our findings with lived experience feedback was invaluable and helped provide a more meaningful evidence base for our recommendations’’ – Commissioning Project Manager, OSPCC

With the strategic goals in place, we are hopeful that many women with MCN experiencing domestic abuse will have improved opportunities to access appropriate safe accommodations and would be more likely to reach out for help and support. However, in order to break down current barriers experienced by those women with MCN, local authorities, commissioned services and the wider support system must develop tangible action plans that will operationalise the commitments made within the strategy and bring the voices of experts by experience to the forefront.  


Emily Page, Systems Change Project Assistant

For further information about Fulfilling Lives work in this area, please contact:

Systems Change Project Assistant

Rebecca Rieley, Systems Change Lead:  

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