Women being put at risk in ‘intimidating’ treatment services

Women can be at risk of being targeted by abusers in ‘chaotic, intimidating or unsafe’ drug and alcohol treatment services, according to a report from the Centre for Justice Innovation and Staffordshire University. 

Some women were forced to attend mixed-gender treatment groups, which could make it difficult for them to talk about issues associated with their substance use, such as sexual abuse or sexual violence. Others said they felt vulnerable to ‘predatory males’ in mixed-sex treatment spaces, the report states. 

Barriers to accessing treatment were found to be ‘more pronounced’ for members of some minority communities, such as South Asian women
Barriers to accessing treatment were found to be ‘more pronounced’ for members of some minority communities, such as South Asian women

The findings are based on interviews at community treatment services – including one women’s centre – across three local authority areas in the West Midlands. Participants included almost 30 women in treatment along with 20 practitioners, all of whom had experience of both mixed-sex and women-only provision. Treatment workers described women being groomed into sex work after being targeted by male service users, with one practitioner stating that, ‘My experience of women coming in to services is that you do tend to get a lot of predatory males attending services as well. I know over the years it was sort of like a hunting ground.’

Women entering treatment for substance issues have different needs to men, including childcare responsibilities, a more acute sense of stigma and higher incidences of trauma and abusive relationships, the document states. It calls for specialist approaches to women’s treatment that are designed to keep them safe – including spaces appropriate for those with children – and that recognise the ‘strong link’ between substance use and domestic abuse or childhood sexual abuse.

Barriers to accessing treatment were found to be ‘more pronounced’ for members of some minority communities, such as South Asian women or women with an Eastern European background, it adds. Services also still tended to work in silos rather than in partnership with other sources of support such as women’s centres, mental health or domestic abuse organisations, with many of these not offering support to women using substances.

At the DDN Conference in July director of Working With Everyone, April Wareham, told delegates how women at her organisation’s workshops had reported that they’re weren’t offered the choice of a male or female key worker, with female attendees at fellowship meetings often the only woman in the group (DDN, September, page 7). ‘I still go to events now where I’m asked to write my name, phone number and email address on a piece of paper that will then be passed around the room,’ she said.  

‘The government’s From harm to hope drugs strategy recognises that many women are not receiving effective drug treatment, and that changes are needed,’ said deputy director at the Centre for Justice Innovation Vicki Morris. ‘Our research paints a clear picture of how current services run the risk of making women unsafe or failing to give them the support they need. We must take advantage of the government’s investment in new treatment places to provide safer, more effective services for women.’ 

‘Overcoming addiction to alcohol or drugs is an immensely difficult challenge – and this is made even harder for women, who face wider issues which can prevent their ability to engage with treatment services,’ added West Midlands police and crime commissioner Simon Foster. ‘By understanding the unique challenges faced by women and implementing evidence-based practices, we can take the necessary action to ensure a more inclusive and effective treatment system, that supports the recovery and well-being of all people in our community.’

Exploring women’s experience of drug and alcohol treatment in the West Midlands at https://justiceinnovation.org/publications/exploring-womens-experience-drug-and-alcohol-treatment-west-midlands

Read reports and watch video from the DDN Conference session looking at challenges faced by women who use drugs and the need for more specialist support. 

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