Evaluation of Sixteen Women's Community Justice Services in Scotland

This document presents the findings of an evaluation of sixteen women’s community justice services in Scotland. The evaluation was conducted by the Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services (IRISS) during 2014-15.

7 Outcomes for Women

Key findings

  • Overall, most women in WCJSs experienced improvements in at least one outcome (83%), and on average women made progress in four outcomes.
  • Women were most likely to make progress in short-term outcomes such as improved problem solving skills (58%), engagement with services (57%), stable and safe housing (56%), willingness to work on problems (54%), mental health (52%), and substance misuse (52%).
  • Positive change tended to occur when women were stable, felt motivated to change, felt supported or encouraged by workers or a person they trusted, and had opportunities or access to support at the appropriate time (underlining the importance of properly sequenced holistic support and the often-described 'softer' outcomes).
  • Women were less likely to make progress in other (longer-term) outcomes, including positive or rewarding ways to spend their time (36%), work, volunteering or training (29%), and improved family relationships (37%).
  • Women were also less likely to make progress in achieving the view that offending is unacceptable (38%) (although only a small proportion entered with this view).
  • Women's progress was not linear and some women experienced setbacks as well as improvements, particularly in housing, physical and sexual health, and engagement with services (though in some cases negative progress may result from full circumstances becoming known over time.)
  • Practitioners identified that progress was particularly challenging for women with more complex needs, unstable substance misuse, and those with experiences of trauma or abuse (e.g. domestic violence or the placement of children into care).


This section reports on outcomes for women, drawn from interviews from nine WCJSs, and data on women's progress in (all) WCJSs. Findings are presented at a national level. The section begins with a summary of the data and women's outcomes overall, followed by outcome findings in nine key areas.

7.1 Women's outcome findings were informed by:

  • Qualitative data from interviews with practitioners and women in nine WCJSs, which represented the different model types. These WCJSs are therefore represented more frequently in quotes and examples. Women and practitioners were asked what type of changes they experienced or observed and what they attributed the change to. Variations by WCJSs were identified (if possible) to help understand 'what worked, for whom and in what circumstances'.[i]
  • Quantitative data from assessments conducted in 13 WCJSs using a standardised 'service user questionnaire'.[57] Practitioners assessed women against 14 outcomes, when they first entered the service, and again when they exited or at six months. Findings report progress for 406 women who entered WCJSs between April and December 2014, and the 'exit state' for 506 women who left during that same period.[58] Data was pooled at a national level and used to understand overall patterns of progress for all women in WCJSs. The data was examined for patterns to identify whether specific activities across WCJSs (e.g. health, welfare rights, purposeful activities) were more effective than others to improve women's progress. Although this appeared to be the case in some outcomes, the small numbers and variation in WCJSs' target groups and local provision meant that these findings could not be attributed or asserted with confidence.

7.2 The evidence of outcomes presented for women in WCJSs must be understood in the following context:

  • The changes in women's lives described took place amongst complex social and personal situations, and it is therefore not possible to attribute change to a simple 'WCJS effect'. The absence of a representative sample or comparative group also limits the extent to which arguments of attribution can be made.
  • Women's progress was measured for a short duration only, ranging from a few weeks to nine months (five months on average) depending on the length of their engagement with the WCJS.
  • Negative progress in one area can sometimes indicate positive progress in other areas (e.g. previously undiagnosed health issues or debt problems uncovered as a result of improved engagement with services). Similarly, practitioners reported that women might disclose more accurate information in later assessments once they've established trusted relationships with workers (e.g. such as sexual health or domestic violence).

Summary of progress for all women in WCJSs

7.3 Progress experienced by women in WCJSs varied across the 14 outcomes measured (see Figure 3 and full table in Annex D).

7.4 Overall most women (83%)[59] made progress in at least one of the 14 outcomes, and on average women made progress in four. As shown in Figure 3, women's progress is not necessarily linear and some women experienced setbacks in areas; approximately one third (31%)[60] of women 'got worse' in at least one outcome.

7.5 Figure 3 reports progress for all women assessed in WCJSs. However, this includes progress in outcomes for women who may have entered the WCJS with that particular outcome already fulfilled (e.g. she had safe and stable housing, therefore no action is needed, and progress is expected to 'stay the same'). The volume of these cases conceals the 'real progress' of women who entered WCJSs in 'negative circumstances' and for whom change is most desired (e.g. she entered with unsafe housing, which requires action and progress is expected to 'get better').

7.6 Therefore, it is more meaningful to report and understand progress experienced by women who entered WCJSs in a 'negative state' in each outcome (see Annex D for definitions). Progress for this population is reported in Table 11 and is referred to throughout this section.

Figure 3: Overall progress by outcome for all women (1 April - 31 December 2014)

Figure 3: Overall progress by outcome for all women (1 April - 31 December 2014)

Summary of progress for women who entered in negative circumstances

7.7 As explained above, women's progress is reported only for those women who entered WCJSs in a 'negative state' in each outcome.

7.8 Women were most likely to make progress in meeting short-term outcomes. This reflects prioritisation of support to stabilise areas of women's lives (e.g. secure housing) and promote their 'readiness to change', such as their confidence, motivation and ability to work on problems and communicate and engage effectively with services (Table 11).

7.9 Women were less likely to experience improvements in longer-term outcomes such as purposeful activities (although findings indicate these may not only be long-term outcomes - see outcomes section 7.78), family relationships, and views that offending is unacceptable. These reflect areas in which women either received less support (see Table 8), and/or where changes take time amongst complex social and personal situations. See individual sections below for detailed findings.

7.10 Housing, physical and sexual health and engagement with services were areas in which a minority of women were more likely to 'get worse' (8-9%).[61] This may indicate areas that were more vulnerable to setbacks or the tendency that women may only fully disclose the extent of their circumstances over time (see section 7.2).

7.11 The remainder of the section reports findings by the 14 outcome measures, grouped into nine areas.

Table 11: Progress by outcome of women who entered WCJSs in a 'negative state' only

Women who entered WCJSs in a 'negative state' per outcome between 1 April and 31 December 2014

Table 11: Progress by outcome of women who entered WCJSs in a 'negative state' only

Note: Total percentages may not equal 100% due to rounding. Use of colour highlights order of prevalence.
Criminogenic need (associated with the risk of offending)

Engagement with services

7.12 One of the key aims of WCJSs was to facilitate women's engagement with practical support and overcome any barriers they faced in accessing support from mainstream services.

7.13 One third of women entered WCJSs with difficulties engaging with services (34%).[62] Fieldwork supported wider evidence that women faced both practical barriers such as knowing where and how to access services, and personal barriers e.g. distrust of mainstream services due to previous negative experiences, or women being removed from registers due to repeat non-attendance or poor behaviour.[vii],[xx]

7.14 Engagement with services was one of the outcomes in which women were most likely to improve; over half (57%)[63] of women who were not engaging with services when they entered WCJSs were now engaging willingly and requiring less support to do so. Of women who exited WCJSs, only 18%[64] were not engaging with services.

7.15 Women and practitioners largely attributed women's improved engagement to the shift in providing flexible, multi-disciplinary support in WCJSs (e.g. proactive outreach, multi-disciplinary teams, and informal environments), which was different to traditional CJSW supervision:

"When women [were] bringing up problems of Welfare Rights types issues, which happens a lot, you had nothing to offer. For medical services, you could try if you liked to maybe get a service. Probably unsuccessfully. To be able now to speak about these needs and address them, makes [women] feel more interested. We know they've got a variety of different problems, so it's not just, "We're here to talk about why you were involved in this part of offending," which to some extent, we were confined to before. It's just opened everything up. It's expanded what we can do, really considerably."
- Practitioner, WCJS Women's Team

7.16 In addition, women's improved ability to engage with services independently was attributed to support in other areas, such as support to improve mental health (e.g. confidence), improved life-skills (e.g. communication and self-presentation skills), and encouragement or practical assistance from workers.

7.17 These findings suggest that external agencies may benefit from the support provided by WCJSs to their clients (e.g. more efficient referrals and attendance).

7.18 Practitioners reflected on the success of proactive outreach activities that support building trusting relationships with women (see section 6.54), and thereafter linking them into services in WCJSs or the community. In rural areas, community hubs were reported to improve accessibility and promote engagement with services for women who were stable and lived within a two bus-ride limit. However, evidence suggested that hubs (similar to other models), had limited success with women who had unstable substance use, or were living in very rural areas, who required individual outreach, e.g. home visits, at least initially.

7.19 There was strong qualitative evidence to support that having multi-disciplinary practitioners 'in-house' or linked to WCJSs lowered the practical and personal barriers for women to access services. In WCJSs with co-located provision, women reported seeing multiple team members in one visit and practitioners reported greater flexibility in being able to re-schedule appointments, for women to present unexpectedly, and to enable women to access support in WCJS if, for example, their needs do not meet the thresholds for specialist services (e.g. NHS psychiatric services):

"A lot of the women that we work with, even if they do get into the services, just can't handle turning up at the right time on the right day for weeks to keep their appointments. Whereas, they can phone up [mental health nurse] and say, "Can I come in today?"
- Practitioner, WCJS Women's Team

7.20 The informal environment created in centres, hubs and drop-in sessions also provided flexible and relaxed opportunities for women to receive support outside of structured appointments, and broke down some of the barriers for women to engage positively with a range of workers, not just social work (see section 6.78):

"Sometimes you have a bad experience with [social work] in the past so you have got that barrier up already. There is a nurse, Ann*, she comes and she always speaks to you. They don't force it on you what you have got to talk about.[…] It is just informal, then you have got Claire* from Sacro she is really good as well, really approachable. I think it is good to have that mixture and you are not just feeling that it is social work that is here."
- Erin (late 20s), service user

7.21 The reasons indicated by women who did not engage with (mainstream) services included low levels of confidence, wariness towards being offered support (i.e. for women who preferred to satisfy minimum supervisory requirements and leave), or that support was offered at a time when women were not 'ready':

"[… sometimes] getting them to accept a referral for a health service, for a Welfare Rights Officer [is challenging], because their focus is elsewhere. Whether it's drugs, alcohol, their relationships, or what have you. For me personally, a huge challenge is actually getting them to accept a service or look beyond [here and now]."
- Practitioner, WCJS Women's Team


7.22 Almost two in five women entered WCJSs with a housing-related need (most of whom lacked safe or stable housing) (39%)[65]. Approximately one in ten women (13%)[66] were homeless when they entered.

7.23 At their most recent assessment, just over half (56%)[67] of women who entered WCJSs in unsafe or unstable accommodation made some improvement, i.e. they got somewhere to stay and/or it was safer or more stable than where they had been living previously.

7.24 In interviews, improvements in housing typically required multiple agencies working together, e.g. local authorities and housing associations; mostly driven by the persistence of WCJS practitioners e.g. social or support workers.

7.25 Women valued help to attend housing appointments, advocacy by WCJS staff to support their housing application, or to get health and safety issues addressed (e.g. dampness or changing of locks) which they had previously been unable to progress on their own.

7.26 The small group (9%, 12) whose housing situation deteriorated while in WCJSs may reflect the vulnerability of women's housing to external events such as domestic abuse, eviction, or being returned to custody, as described by practitioners.

7.27 Among women who exited WCJSs, the majority (83%) left while living in relatively safe and secure housing; 10% exited with unsafe or unstable housing and 7% of women were homeless.[68] Women who left with poor or unresolved housing situations were more likely to have left WCJSs in unplanned circumstances.

7.28 Women who were interviewed had a range of housing situations, including those who had been homeless, lived in temporary accommodation, lived with family or friends, or had their own tenancy. Women commonly linked housing to a sense of stability in having (or wanting) their 'own place', and to independence (away from negative associates or places). Housing played an important role in enabling women to 'move on' or make progress in other areas of their life; but it could take different amounts of time to see change, as illustrated in the following accounts from two women:

"[Staff] managed to get me a flat. It turned out to be the street I grew up in... [It was] really quick. … I [have now] started building a relationship with my sister. She lives [nearby]. I am more in touch with them, whereas before I was just stuck out in the East."
- Lucy (30s), service user

"I'm in a temporary flat now, I'm trying to get another flat, which I've been doing for about eleven and a half months now […] But now, I've got my head clear and I know what I need to do. I'll get it done up for me and the bairn. Then, I don't know. Just do what I've been doing, because what I've been doing for the last couple of months seems to be working."
- Adele (20s), service user

7.29 Practitioners also emphasised that safe and stable housing was critical to enable women to make progress in other areas of their lives. This was particularly so for women who had just left prison or were experiencing domestic violence: times where women were often motivated to make a 'new start'. A practitioner in an area with poor housing options stated that the lack of stable housing options 'set women up to fail':

"I was speaking to [a woman] the other day who was about to get out of prison and she was dreading going into a hostel. Absolutely dreading it. She was saying, "I've got stabilised. I'm on methadone and everything. If I go into a hostel, I know that I'll be back at square one." She'll know lots of people in these hostels, [...] and it's going to be very, very difficult to say "No" to her old acquaintances."
Practitioner, WCJS Women's Team

7.30 Some women did not experience a change in housing status (35%).[69] Descriptions of the time it took to secure housing for women ranged from two weeks to just under 12 months. The lack of progress (or time taken to secure housing) for some women may be attributed to practitioners' reports of shortages in appropriate housing in some areas and for particular types of women, e.g. a lack of safe options for women on release from prison or single person accommodation for women without children. 'Sticky reputations' (e.g. anti-social behaviour or substance misuse) or women declining housing options also limited progress in some cases.

Welfare rights and finances

7.31 Two in five women entered WCJSs with financial problems (39%, 289).[70] Fifty-two women had 'serious money problems and/or no apparent means of support'.

7.32 Forty four per cent of women who entered WCJSs with serious or regular financial problems experienced an improvement.[71] Additionally, almost all women who had entered with no serious financial difficulties remained in a positive situation or got even better (95%)[72]. Among the women who exited WCJSs, one in five (23%) left with serious or regular money problems.[73]

7.33 In interviews, women attributed improvements in their financial circumstances to the support provided by WCJSs staff, most typically described that they 'got their benefits sorted'. Practitioners explained that this involved supporting women with their applications, and where welfare rights officers were available, the maximisation of benefits, or representation of women at tribunals (see section 6.22).

7.34 Many women reported that they would not have otherwise accessed financial support, not least because some did not know about their entitlements or that they could access free support in money advice services. Women and practitioners indicated that having support in WCJSs helped overcome the barriers to engage directly with DWP due to the complexity of processes, or based on past negative experiences.

7.35 Practitioners in WCJSs with WROs identified that resolving benefit issues and gaining some financial stability had contributed towards stability in women's lives, particularly in relation to housing. Practitioners reported that educating women about benefits and empowering them to ask for help rather than 'just pushing problems away to do with debts and benefits and housing' had reduced the risk of future benefit sanctions, offending (where this was poverty related), or eviction:

"There were definitely people that got evicted [before] who would not have been evicted if we'd had Rob* [as WCJS's welfare rights officer]."
- Practitioner, WCJS Women's Team

Substance misuse

7.36 The high prevalence of substance misuse in women in the justice system is well documented and known to be associated with reoffending (i.e. a criminogenic need).[ix]

7.37 Three in five women entered WCJSs with an identified need for support relating to (any level of) substance misuse (59%).[74]

7.38 Just over half (52%)[75] of women who had entered WCJSs with 'serious'[76] substance misuse issues experienced an improvement, e.g. they stopped, reduced or stabilised their use, and it no longer interfered with their daily functioning.

7.39 Women largely attributed their reducing or stopping the misuse of substances to their own determination, and readiness or decision to change (e.g. they had 'had enough', 'grew up' or identified the effect on their family (which was not unique to this outcome)).

7.40 Women described a range of interventions to stop or reduce their substance use, including medical management with legal prescriptions (e.g. methadone), detox or rehab programmes, counselling, and going 'cold turkey', this varied by individual. However, both women and practitioners held that strategies only worked when women 'are ready'.

7.41 Recovery often involved multiple agencies or workers. While few women attributed changes in substance misuse to WCJSs exclusively, some highlighted that the environment and the group or individual support (including mentoring) received in WCJSs motivated or 'pushed' them to deal with issues, reduced isolation, and improved mental health, which contributed to them reducing or stabilising their substance use.

7.42 Women and practitioners linked reductions in substance misuse to improvements elsewhere in women's lives, including family relationships, physical health, and desistance. In interviews, women frequently linked alcohol or drug use to circumstances that led to their offending, as illustrated by this woman who attributed her stabilised alcohol use to her 'growing up and getting on the right medication':

"I'm not drunk. That's my reason [for stopping offending]. I'm not drunk and I'm not taking all my medication wrong. […] It's obvious to the people who have known me for a few years, the change in me. So, I'm well proud of myself."
- Shona (20s), service user

7.43 Not all women, however, reported or showed reductions or stability in substance use. One third[77] of women who exited WCJSs still left with 'serious' substance misuse issues. Most of these women exited WCJSs in unplanned circumstances (e.g. they disengaged or returned to custody, or their order was revoked or breached) but one third left because they had completed their statutory obligations. Addictions are an area in which change takes time and support may continue to be delivered by services outwith WCJSs.

7.44 This data reflects the comments that women and practitioners made about the time it took to address substance issues, and although some women did make progress, others had not. Practitioners reported that some women were vulnerable to relapses due to mental health issues and/or significant life events, e.g. being released from prison, bereavement, or losing care of their children. The quantitative data also indicated high rates of comorbidity among women with substance misuse problems; the vast majority (70%) presented with five or more additional issues, which adds to the complexity of care but underlines the value of holistic approach for women substance misuse issues.

Mental Health

7.45 Mental or emotional health was the most prevalent issue for women entering WCJSs; over three-quarters (78%)[78] entered with a mental health need.

7.46 Over half of women (52%) who entered WCJSs with poor mental health (e.g. frequently scared, anxious, distressed, engaged in self-harming or had suicidal thoughts) experienced an improvement[79] (see Table 11). The most common improvements in mental health described by women included feeling connected to others (i.e. 'less isolated'); improved confidence and self-esteem; reduced depression, stress or anxiety; and/or having a sense of purpose and hope for the future. These four mental health outcomes are described in detail under the headings below.

7.47 Women and practitioners associated a range of features of WCJSs with improved mental health beyond specific 'mental health interventions' e.g. forming positive connections with other women and workers, support in a relaxed environment, and holistic support to address other needs, e.g. substance misuse, housing and family relationships.

7.48 However, a few women interviewed felt they had experienced little improvement in their mental health. The quantitative data showed that one in five women (22%)[80] who exited WCJSs left with poor mental health. A common reason women and practitioners gave for a lack of progress in mental health was the comorbidity or complexity of needs among some women. This included those with addictions who had higher prevalence of mental health issues compared to other women, and women with a history of complex trauma. This underlines the length of time it may take to identify and address the multiple issues that some women experience.

Having a connection with others

7.49 Women described feeling less isolated or 'alone in the world', or feeling a 'part of something' at WCJSs. Women attributed this to having somewhere to go to get support (from staff or other women) or just having the knowledge or comfort that support was 'here if I needed it'.

"It's the knowledge that someone is there for you … I can spend months in my bed, in the darkness, in depression. [I'm] starting to look forward to a Friday. It's a big step forward for me."
- Wilma (late 40s), service user

7.50 The value that women placed in interpersonal relationships was also reflected in the quantitative progress data. The proportion of women in WCJSs who had good mental health, or were able to talk about how they felt with professionals and receive support, increased from 54% to 70% by the time of their progress assessment (on average, five months later).[81]

7.51 Critically, women identified that the informal nature of WCJSs' environment and activities, such as drop-in sessions in community hubs or group activities, provided opportunities to be with others in a way that they had not experienced with other interventions:

"I was quite isolated. So since coming to this group it's been fantastic, meeting other women. […] And [hearing] everyone's different kind of views, and how people are feeling, it kind of makes you feel, I don't know, part of society. [...] Because when I used to go to [mental health resource centre], for treatment of depression, it was always one to one, and that didn't seem to help me. And this has helped me […] it makes you feel not alone in the world any more and not so scared of life."
- Lisa (50s), service user

7.52 In WCJSs that did not have facilities for informal group interaction (e.g. CJSW offices without drop-ins), women talked positively of the role of their mentor in helping to reduce isolation.

Confidence and self-esteem

7.53 Improvements in confidence and self-esteem (which led to self-efficacy) were the most common and consistently reported changes in mental health reported by practitioners and women themselves.

7.54 Women attributed improved confidence largely to having support and workers that were optimistic about their potential or had a 'belief in me'. Staff themselves acknowledged the importance of sustained relationships and helping women to recognise their self-worth.

7.55 Women and practitioners also attributed improved confidence to doing activities they found rewarding, that gave them a sense of achievement (such as learning new skills that they could use in everyday life such as communication/presentation skills), contributing to something or others (e.g. voluntary roles, group projects), or simply engaging with other women in a positive group setting (see purposeful activities section 6.43).

7.56 Improved self-esteem was a prerequisite for women to make or sustain important changes in their lives, such as disassociating from negative peers or perpetrators of domestic violence, or to engage independently with other services.

"[… I'm] learning to be independent myself without having a key worker to phone up and say, "Look, I need you to phone the social work department." I can do that myself now. I speak up for myself now where I couldn't have done that last year. I didn't feel confident enough to even approach the housing or even the DSS because I was so… I just panicked around anybody that was official..."
- Mary (late 50s), service user

Less depressed, stressed or anxious

7.57 Women reported a range of changes in their mental health from small changes in thoughts, feelings and actions experienced as part of everyday life, such as feeling less angry or stressed and more calm and in control; to changes in long-term conditions such as anxiety and depression.

7.58 The quantitative data indicated a modest reduction (16%) in the proportion of women who were frequently scared, anxious or unhappy by the time of their progress assessment.[82] Women reported being better at recognising and responding appropriately to their emotions, but still expected 'ups and downs.'

7.59 Women tended to attribute these changes in their feelings, reasoning and behaviour to having learnt new techniques or 'coping skills' from health professionals or workers in the WCJS in structured groupwork or individual sessions. These included anti-anxiety techniques learned from the nurse or OT, mindfulness training, referral to stress classes, Connections or Survive and Thrive groupwork programmes, or specialist therapies).

7.60 Women in the Willow Centre in particular reported marked improvements in their mental health, which many felt were a result of dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) or interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) therapies received as part of the Centre's focus on mental health:

"Before, I used to get really angry easily, or frustrated because I couldn't express myself properly. I'm able to explain what the emotion is, or why I was having the emotion, and now I'm much better. I'm not going to be one hundred percent cured. I still take the tablets and that. But now, I've been given life skills and different opportunities. […] I've been able to use these skills in everyday life. I know that they're not always going to work, but at least I'm a person that can make decisions now."
- Jen (early 40s), service user

Purpose and hope for the future

7.61 A small but notable group of women expressed changes in their attitude about life (more positive), or a feeling of hopefulness and purpose. These women had generally (but not exclusively) been involved longer or more intensely in the WCJS, and/or had stable circumstances.

7.62 Women attributed feeling more hopeful about their future to a combination of factors, including the support or 'belief' they felt workers had in them, and their own self-efficacy. Importantly, their sense of hope was often linked to tangible achievements or changes that had occurred in their life, such as changes in living or social situation (e.g. moved house, left domestic violence or negative peer associates), an agreed written action plan with staff (e.g. to return to work), or opportunities to volunteer in the WCJS or elsewhere.

7.63 Other reasons that women attributed to improvements in their mental health overall included the welcoming environment of WCJS (in contrast to previous negative experiences of social work or mainstream health services), having 'something to do', having the right medication, and having reduced or stabilised alcohol or drug use.

Physical (and sexual) health

7.64 Almost one third (30%) of women entered WCJSs with a physical or sexual-health need.[83]

7.65 Of women who entered with poor physical or sexual health, 40%[84] and 48%[85] respectively made progress. However, the figure for sexual health must be treated with caution, as the number of women assessed as having poor sexual health was very low (and believed to be underreported.

7.66 Compared to changes in other areas of women's lives, women interviewed had less to say about physical and sexual health improvements, even when prompted. In the few women who reported physical changes, these were commonly related to appearance, e.g. 'looking better', losing weight, and having their teeth fixed. Women rarely talked about sexual health outcomes, which may reflect the personal nature of this topic.

7.67 Practitioners and women attributed improvements in physical and sexual health to having access to health professionals within the WCJSs and/or encouragement and support to attend appointments in the community (e.g. dentist or GP) (see health activities section 6.29).

7.68 Other reasons for women's improved health included reduced or stabilised drug or alcohol use, or adopting healthier behaviours, such as using gym cards obtained by the WCJS (though some women used these less than intended) or cooking and eating healthier food as a result of group cooking classes or food provided at drop-ins.

7.69 One in four women (24%)[86] left WCJSs with poor physical health, similar to the proportion of women who left with poor mental health. A minority (6%)[87] left with poor sexual health, though as noted before, this is suspected to have been underreported.

Family and social relationships

7.70 Social and family relationships have been identified in the literature as being important in the desistance process; with offenders with family support less likely to reoffend than those without.[xi],[xv], [xxvi]

7.71 Almost three in five women entered WCJSs with a need relating to family and social relationships, e.g. they had poor relationships with family or rejected pro-social support (58%).[88]

7.72 However, this was an area in which women were less likely to make progress; fewer than two in five women who entered WCJSs with poor relationships with family made some improvement in this area (37%)[89] despite it being an area in which women were likely to receive support (see Table 8). This may reflect the challenges of changing complex social relations and situations within a short timeframe, or, as several practitioners pointed out, where family ties are 'not there to be strengthened'.

7.73 Among the women who exited WCJSs, over half left with fairly stable or supportive family relationships (56%).[90] In interviews, some women reported improved family relationships with their parents, siblings, and children. They attributed these improvements to a variety of factors, including reduced substance misuse, improved communication skills and strategies to manage their emotions (including anger management), or by resolving deeper conflict or trauma through DBT and psychotherapy (where specialist provision was available). Practitioners highlighted the impact of the removal (or absence) of children on women's lives.

7.74 It was not always possible or appropriate to support them to regain custody of their children if women were not in a position (yet) to do so. However, where it was appropriate, women highly valued the support of their key worker as their advocate and 'independent voice' for them within Children and Families case conferences (see partnerships section 3.20). Helping women to come to terms with the loss of children into care appeared a challenging area for some WCJSs:

"Certainly the majority of the women I'm working with at the moment - although it fluctuates - have had their children removed permanently. It's a decision that had to be made. […] But it leaves the women so traumatised and really with this lasting grief. […] A lot of women then have substance misuse problems and often it escalates after the children have been removed […] I don't think we really have an effective way of meeting that need."
- Practitioner, WCJS Women's Team

7.75 Some women also reported changes in (peer) social relationships, e.g. leaving negative relationships or forming new positive personal relationships (e.g. with spouses/partners, friends, or associates). They associated this change in part to increased confidence and independence developed through attending groupwork, and alternative sources of social support, including WCJS practitioners and positive peers. In some cases, wider contextual factors affected relationships such as moving to a new area or the death or imprisonment of a negative associate, which enabled women to move on. In one WCJS, practitioners agreed that it was often difficult to make progress with women living in on-going domestic abuse situations.

Purposeful activities (leisure, education and work)

7.76 Having activities that women found rewarding was a frequent need among women entering WCJSs. Half of all women (52%)[91] entered without interests or positive ways to spend their time. And more than half (61%)[92] were not in work, volunteering or training. Such activities (i.e. opportunities to apply skills or practice new identifies) have been identified as crucial to developing women's social capital that supports desistance[xxvii] and reintegration.

7.77 However, this was an area women were less likely to experience progress. Just over one third of women (36%)[93] who entered WCJSs without rewarding ways to spend her time experienced improvements. And less than one third (29%)[94] of those not in volunteering, work or training when they entered WCJSs made progress in this area.

7.78 In part this likely reflects appropriate case management in which support to achieve stability or meet women's immediate needs took precedence over longer-term issues (see Table 8). Furthermore, progress in this area is unlikely to be realised in the short evaluation timeframes. However, the strong desire among women for something meaningful to do (see section 6.47) and the benefit to women's confidence and mental wellbeing of such activities suggests that WCJSs, where they don't already do so, should consider engaging women in purposeful activities at an earlier stage in their engagement:

"I've asked if I can be a volunteer [in the WCJS] … I really enjoy helping others, trying to bring the best out in others. What the staff have been doing with me… I never thought in a million years that I would want to do anything like this. [It's] sort of given me a bit of hope for the future, that I can do something that I would enjoy doing. And [to] bring out the best in me."
- Lisa (50s), service user

7.79 Women who experienced positive outcomes in developing rewarding activities described acquiring new skills or knowledge (mostly from group activities or structured programmes in WCJSs); increased awareness of and/or participation in activities in the community (attributed to structured activities or WCJSs outings); or were taking action towards volunteering, or being in training or work:

"I've [had] social work in my life for a couple of years…[but] I'm actually moving forward on this one. I'm actually looking for work just now as well and I've got a voluntary job, which I never, ever thought I would manage to do. They've helped me get my life in the right order. [The reason for the change was] just them telling me to believe in myself basically […] I've wanted to change my life for a while now but it was just getting the push that I needed to actually do it."
- Michelle (late 30s), service user

7.80 Women who described positive changes related to work, volunteering or training commonly attributed their progress to a combination of three factors; having available opportunities; belief and encouragement from others (including staff, mentors, or in some cases other women in WCJSs or family); and feeling motivated to 'move on':

"[...] that was one of the big things that was holding me back; my past, criminal stuff I'd done. And I just kept thinking, no, I want to do this but it's not going to be allowed. And I got a lot of support and [the workers] wrote me out letters of reference. […] So I went through that process of being a volunteer, somebody who's used the service, been a volunteer and now I'm in employment."
- Vicki (30s), service user

7.81 Contextual factors that influenced progress in women developing purposeful activities in the community included perceived or real stigma and public attitudes towards women involved in the criminal justice system, as described by a few women and shown elsewhere in the literature.[xxviii] A few practitioners identified 'self-censorship' among women who were hesitant to engage in community groups because they feared being judged on their past, and therefore needed 'more encouragement to get into community resources than they do [support] agencies'. Other influences on outcomes identified included the local economic environment and lack of leisure opportunities in small towns or rural areas. Despite acknowledging the challenges for women, however, some practitioners remained optimistic:

"Women [will] quite often say I will never get a job because of my convictions. And the convictions are a barrier, I mean we can't pretend it's not a barrier, but it's not insurmountable."
- Practitioner, WCJS Women's Team

Desistance from crime

Readiness to change

7.82 In interviews, practitioners and women spoke about women needing to be 'ready to change' as a prerequisite to making progress in desistance and its underlying drivers. In this evaluation, being 'ready to change' was regarded as having views and beliefs that supported desistance, a willingness to work on problems, and the skills to solve problems in daily life. These can be understood as providing the building blocks for more tangible progress in other criminogenic needs such as substance misuse and family/ social relationships.

7.83 An assessment of women's needs when they entered the WCJSs indicated that most women acknowledged that their offending was unacceptable; they believed they could stop offending and/or knew how to do so; and were willing to work on their problems (see Figure 2 above). However, most women were not solving everyday problems (such as sorting out changes to welfare benefits or resolving relationship conflicts). Problem-solving skills was one of the highest needs among women who entered WCJSs.

7.84 Encouragingly though, problem-solving skills also proved to be the area in which women in WCJSs were most likely to make progress (Table 11). Of the women who were not solving everyday problems when they entered WCJSs, over half (58%)[95] made some improvement towards solving problems independently. Similarly, over half of women (54%)[96] who were initially unwilling to work on their problems made some improvement and accepted support to change. Women provided examples of their improved confidence and ability to deal with mainstream services (such as housing, welfare rights, and health) as a result of support in WCJSs to build on communication and self-presentation skills, and self-efficacy (e.g. emotional regulation and improved decision making, which appeared to play a role in women's desistance, below).

7.85 Women also made progress in improved attitudes towards desistance (albeit a smaller proportion). Of the women who entered WCJSs believing that they couldn't desist from crime and/or didn't know how to, almost half (46%)[97] made some improvement.

7.86 It appeared slightly more challenging, however, to change women's views on the acceptability of offending. Of the 406 women with progress assessments, 174 women entered WCJSs with a view that offending was (sometimes) acceptable. By the time of their assessment, just 66 women (38%) had changed their attitude. Of the 108 women who didn't improve, the vast majority 94 women (87%) were inconsistent in their views about whether or not offending was acceptable.

7.87 None of the women who took part in the interviews expressed pro-criminal attitudes or views, but some were able to reflect on times where they had held negative attitudes towards authority and/or had not considered the impact of the crime on the victim. Reasons for change in attitudes varied, but included maturation (see below), raised awareness from groupwork content, and positive, caring, and collaborative relationships women had experienced with professionals (including sentencers).

7.88 The findings suggest that personal beliefs and views that influence women's decisions to offend may take longer to change. As indicated in findings elsewhere (in the literature), women's decisions should also be understood within the context of severely constrained choices.[xxii] The evaluation data showed that women who entered WCJSs with pro-criminal attitudes (e.g. thought offending was (sometimes) acceptable and/or didn't believe they could desist) had, on average more complex needs than women who believed otherwise.[98] This may indicate that some women may need to experience improvements in other areas of their lives before changes in beliefs or views can occur (e.g. develop better mental health, positive reciprocal social bonds, or resolve the practical needs that may otherwise 'justify' offending, such as finances).

Changes in offending patterns

7.89 When asked in interviews what changes there had been in their lives since entering the WCJSs, few women identified changes in offending without being prompted. Women interviewed tended not to consider themselves as 'offenders', or often distanced themselves from this label through the language they used. Many practitioners also reflected this sentiment, whereby they felt that stopping offending was more likely to flow from addressing holistic needs rather than being a direct or main focus of the intervention.

7.90 With few exceptions, the majority of women interviewed reported that they had stopped offending; some had made this decision before they had entered WCJSs, others as result of this engagement. A few women were less certain, which indicated that desistance was dependent on the circumstances they found themselves in. Women expressed this in soft terms such as 'I'm hoping I won't', 'I don't think I would', or 'I've no desire to go back to prison, touch wood'. These uncertainties existed even in the context of women who had made progress, as reported by this woman who had made positive changes in her personal life and housing (and had been directly engaged and encouraged by the Sheriff in court):

"I'm definitely different, yeah. But sometimes it will still go through my head. That's truthful [… But] could you imagine getting back at court [in] December; I've done all of this work and then imagine going in the nick?"
- Chelsea (30s), service user

7.91 While many WCJS agreed it was 'too early to tell' if the intervention had worked, practitioners identified various changes in women's offending, which included:

  • Changes in offending patterns and responses: Several practitioners reported that few women reoffended during their order, but if they did, there was longer between offences or they committed less serious crimes. They also observed a difference in women's attitudes if they did relapse or were prosecuted for a historical offence, and felt that women were more positive or had greater resolve to persist in making behaviour changes. Practitioners attributed this to 'not giving up' on women when they experienced almost inevitable hiccups in the desistance process.
  • Improved compliance and fewer breaches: Practitioners in several WCJSs observed improved compliance with orders and fewer breaches (although this was not consistently measured within the evaluation). In particular, Angus described a marked improvement in compliance and engagement among women on high tariff structured deferred sentences (see Box 9). Of the women who exited WCJSs, 8%[99] did so due to breach of their statutory order (though this may underestimate total breaches if women are breached but remained 'in' the WCJSs). Practitioners attributed improved compliance and reduced breach to their engagement strategies (section 6.54), holistic support and the flexibility in the way they worked with women at risk of breaching. Other contributory factors included issuing reminders and supporting women to attend supervision or court appointments.

7.92 Women frequently identified multiple triggers or reasons that lead to desistance, which often occurred interdependently. The most common reasons for reduced offending identified by women included:

  • Reduced substance misuse: Most commonly, women referred to their offending as 'a thing of the past' because they had stopped or reduced their use of drugs or alcohol (see outcomes in section 7.42):

"So, every time I drank vodka, I'd go to jail. […] I'm totally moving out of the game. I've lost enough, I've lost time with my family, my son growing up, I've wasted four years of my life through a bottle of vodka and cans of lager."
- Pam (early 50s), service user

  • Emotional regulation and improved decision-making: Women reported thinking about their behaviours and an ability to make better decisions. This was most often attributed to skills learned in groupwork or mental health therapies (see outcomes section 7.59).

"I'm not so angry now. I think before I do something. … I would say [it's due mainly to] the DBT. I wish I'd had the skills a year ago, and then I wouldn't be in the trouble that I'm in. I'm hoping that I won't offend again, because I'm not so angry and wound up."
- Jen (early 40s), service user

  • Maturation: Women also attributed their change in offending to having got older or tired of circumstances, which led to different lifestyle choices (e.g. leaving negative associates). This was closely linked to comments from women and practitioners of the importance of motivation and self-efficacy in making changes:

"My behaviour has totally changed. I think it's growing up and realising you're making bad choices in your life. And it's just continuing trying to stay positive and make the proper choices for you and your family. Definitely. I think back at the time, and the offences made; there was a lot of stuff going on, it's just not being able to cope with it and stuff. So aye it was pretty hard going. But aye, my outlook on life is just totally different now, so I think that helps you to make better choices."
- Molly (30s), service user

7.93 Other reasons for changes in offending identified by women were family relationships and/or losing care of children, which stood out as common triggers or motivators for women to reassess and change their lives, evident in several of women's comments above.

7.94 For some women, the desire to 'get their children back' was often a motivator for behaviour change or a deterrent for future offending as they felt they had 'too much to lose'. In other cases, disrupted family relationships were associated with criminogenic needs, such as increased substance misuse, which could in turn lead to further offending. A few women also referred to experiences in court or prison as a deterrent or motivation to not offend in future.

7.95 Whilst women's progress towards desistance was underpinned by their own motivation and decision-making, many women acknowledged the support of others. This included support from family, other agencies such as addiction services, and practitioners and women in WCJSs. Some women felt that having practitioners 'believing you can actually make something of your life' or just being 'a part of something' in WCJSs were important in their desistance journey:

"I come to [the service] to be part of something, part of a group. I feel very appreciated, I feel valued and I feel liked. I feel like I've got something that I do that's mine, apart from being a mother I feel like I've actually got something more to do. And it's kept me away from drugs; it's kept me away from crime; it's kept me away from idiots that I shouldn't even be associating with. […] I've actually not offended since [coming here]..."
- Zoe (early 30s), service user

7.96 More broadly, both women and practitioners attributed women's desistance to improvements in other outcomes, notably mental health, finance, and substance misuse. This underlines the complexity of women's journeys towards desistance, and justifies the need for flexible, holistic services, which can accommodate multiple needs rather than purely offence-focussed work.


Email: Tamsyn Wilson

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