Inner Strength

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Kaleidoscope’s recent conference stimulated valuable debate on how women affected by drug and alcohol issues could be better supported in the community. Sarah Orrell reports.

Cardiff City Stadium hosted Kaleidoscope’s informative and inspirational March conference, Women affected by drug and alcohol issues. More than 200 delegates attended and the packed itinerary included persuasive speakers from the police, social research, healthcare, and a range of charities supporting transformation and empowerment for women. 

Kaleidoscope’s co-founder Mary Blakebrough opened with an account of the charity’s 45-year journey, giving the metaphor of a kaleidoscope as a rallying call; the delegates’ diverse roles and perspectives being like multicoloured glass fragments in the patterns of a kaleidoscope. It was a strikingly gentle symbol given the challenging themes under discussion, but nevertheless powerfully demonstrated in the mutual goodwill and collaborative enthusiasm that was tangible across the (all female) speakers and (mostly female) delegates. 

Interconnected themes concerning drug and alcohol issues and how these relate specifically to women emerged throughout the day, together with the often overlooked impacts on children, families and wider society. Amanda Davies, CEO of the Seren Group, predicted that increasing economic pressures and welfare reforms would mean a rise in behaviours such as gambling, doorstep lending and cannabis farming, and thereafter to more evictions and homelessness. Domestic pressures often drove women further into destructive behaviours, reinforcing their disempowerment, and compounding the problems for their dependents. 

‘One in ten children in Britain have at least one parent with a significant drink or drugs problem,’ said Pam Webb, head of Zurich Community Trust. Moreover, ‘children who have a parent with an alcohol or drugs problem are eight times more likely to end up with a similar problem themselves’. Webb gave encouraging reports from the trust, which focused on helping to create a positive future for children by breaking the cycle of parental substance misuse and providing a safer environment for children to flourish.

Jenny Earle represented the Prison Reform Trust, whose values included reserving prison for serious offences that could not be served in the community. She claimed that, ‘of the 11,000 women in England and Wales who are imprisoned every year, 81 per cent have committed non-violent offences.’ Links were made between crime and drug-related issues, with the claim that ‘over half of women in prison report having used heroin, cocaine or crack in the four weeks prior to entry.’ The Prison Reform Trust advocated treating prisoners and their families with ‘humanity and respect,’ and Earle described women in prison as the ‘neglected minority,’ with 31 per cent of all self-harm incidents in prison relating to women, even though women made up only 5 per cent of the whole prison population. Women prisoners tended to receive far fewer visitors in comparison to men, were imprisoned further from home because of the lack of appropriate facilities, and their children were far less likely to be cared for by the other parent during their imprisonment. 

Deputy police and crime commissioner Sophie Howe pointed out that women affected by substance misuse were more vulnerable to crime, as well as being at greater risk of domestic violence and unplanned pregnancies while under the influence. She called for a more joined-up approach between the police and other services and agencies. This need was underlined by Dr Gail Gilchrist, head of the Centre for Applied Social Research at the University of Greenwich. Her work on intimate partner violence (IPV, which included physical, sexual and psychological harm, coercion and controlling behaviours) showed that risk factors extended to education, finance, family history, and exposure to substance misuse in either partner. However, IPV services did not routinely treat substance misuse, and substance misuse services did not treat IPV. 

Meanwhile, cuts to funding in the areas of domestic violence and sexual abuse meant even less support for IPV issues. ‘This means that substance abuse agencies need to get involved in dealing with IPV and other problems more effectively,’ said Gilchrist. Dr Bernadette Hard from Kaleidoscope advocated increased use of long acting reversible contraception (LARC). Contraceptives that were effective by default, without relying on the woman’s actions, could help to address the imbalance, where vulnerable women were forced to exercise a greater sense of responsibility than men. 

Workshops included a presentation on service user involvement, by Rondine Molinaro of Gwent service user group The Voice. Rondine described service users as ‘experts by experience’ and made the case for a wider awareness of the 2007 service user involvement framework (online at http://bit.ly/ZHBzDD) which set out a ladder diagram depicting ways in which service users can be involved in influencing and improving services. Head of legal services at Release, Kirstie Douse, examined the issue of service users’ rights. She claimed that benefits systems tended to favour those with a non-stigmatised, visible disability. Alcohol and drug-related claimants needed to spell out clearly what their problems were, take someone with them if necessary, and appeal if the result went against them. She advised contacting Release for advice, since 95 per cent of appeals were successful with legal assistance. 

Drug and alcohol awareness in education was addressed in a workshop by Debbie Blakebrough and Leanne Teichner from Kaleidoscope. They looked at realistic and beneficial educational aims, including empowering young people to make informed choices of their own. Other approaches, where schools excluded children for drug taking, and police focused on criminality, had been found to stigmatise and isolate people, and even glamorise drug-related behaviours. The workshop ended by encouraging women to celebrate their strengths and assets, rather than feel they just had to survive in a world seemingly designed around men. Likewise, Rebecca Daddow from the RSA encouraged delegates to consider ‘recovery capital’ – the various resources and empowerment that could come from a holistic look at human life in all its dimensions, for the benefit of recoverers.

It was a stirring conference and a fascinating overview of a complex subject, which will hopefully lead to more opportunities for services and agencies to work more closely together for the good of women and society.

Sarah Orrell is a freelance journalist