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Childhood trauma and women’s homelessness

This theme explores the issues surrounding the impact of childhood trauma and abuse on the lives of women who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. The theme is led by Expert Group member, Jacqui Dillon, Independent Trauma Specialist. Read the theme round-up here.

In her blog, Jacqui writes: “After one hundred years of denial and ignorance, it is now becoming more widely accepted that sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of children, alongside the impact of neglect, is a genuine and common phenomenon with potentially devastating long term consequences for the mental health of the survivors.

“What is not widely recognised are the many overlapping ways in which childhood trauma can impact on adult lives, including complex needs such as serious mental health difficulties , substance use and homelessness.”

How do we make sure women get the right help, at the right time? We want to hear from practitioners on the ground and from women using services themselves, about what works and what support is missing.

In particular, we want to hear about:

  • Psychological support services which address childhood trauma for homeless women
  • Services which support girls in the care system or care leavers
  • Work on cycles of deprivation and intergenerational factors
  • Early intervention services
  • Support around sexual exploitation of young women

Please also submit any relevant research so we can gather this together to improve the support out there for women.

If you have already joined the campaign, please log in to submit evidence. If you are not already a member, please click here to register. 


Theme started on: 04 Jul 2012

20 Submissions

  1. Maxine Brown

    I don’t remember a time from my childhood home when I felt happy, safe or secure or received any positive attention. I would have liked if my teacher at primary or secondary school had picked up that I was withdrawn or acting out and asked why that was. I didn’t know the support was out there. It didn’t even come into my mind to ask for help, as I accepted the abuse and thought it was normal. I never had any help to get my hair combed or clothes ironed and would get beaten for not being ready for school.
    As I got older I wanted to be loved and belong somewhere as I had never felt this before. I could be hooked in by any man that was nice to me as I didn’t have the foundation of self esteem that I needed. Abuse stopped me taking my own space in life. I lost the ability to stand up for myself and was manipulated, exploited and beaten. Some people who are abused can go on to abuse others, but most just beat themselves up inside. I turned to drug use to fill that void and I looked at my house it was unmanageable and I reflected it looked like me- totally unmanageable.
    I got to a point that I had to move to women’s refuge because of domestic violence. You just take the slap and abuse because you have taken it all your life. When I was there the council chased me for being behind on rent. I went back to the flat and was served eviction papers. I tried to overdose the day the bailiffs came and I wanted them to find me there dead on the floor. I woke up though, and after some time in hospital stayed in various temporary accommodation projects, slept in a tower block and was homeless. All I had was my jeans and top and I thought I was finished. Because I had not been able to ask for help as a child, it stays with you and I couldn’t ask for help as an adult. The emotional pain dictated my life.
    After I did finally receive help I stopped taking the drink and drugs and things changed. I started to recover day by day. It takes honesty and trust. I have had to go back and nurture little Maxine, and I had to forgive my mum and the woman she gave me to, so that she is now out of my life and out of my mind. If kept the anger and pain I would not have the place to grow, I have to let go and practice acceptance of my past, but I know look forward to my future a day at a time. I found spirituality within narcotics anonymous meetings and I am inspired daily through affirmations and other literature.

  2. OIWG

    Comments from residents at the July St Mungo’s Outside In Women’s Group:

    ‘I think to tackle childhood trauma we need more support for parents, even things like nutrition and how to feed children well. Growing up in an environment where you just get biscuits and things has an impact.’

    ‘Things that happen as a child scar you for life. Moving on is about overcoming fear. Women need the option to talk about it but there needs to be no pressure, so they can start to deal with it but not be overwhelmed.’

    ‘Talking to another woman needs to be an option for some, it might have been a man in childhood that did the abuse so they could be more comfortable speaking to a woman.’

    ‘In my experience if someone opens up about their emotions then goes back to somewhere where they are lonely or isolated then this can do damage. We need social support alongside counselling.’

    ‘Women should be able to access support groups around childhood trauma with other women so they no longer feel isolated and they don’t feel judged and can learn from others. It is good to vent and even chat with a group of friends. In supported housing people have been through a lot. Counselling is not for everyone, and key workers should be able to help in a more informal way. I know from experience that not everyone likes counselling’.

    ‘When I was a young woman in Holloway Prison I was pregnant and lost my baby to the care of my Mum while I was there. It was hard and I had post-natal depression- there was a programme called ‘Journey’ or something that I went to every week. It helped just to chat to someone. The woman was good and she helped, and I liked her because she reminded me of my mum.’

  3. OIWG

    One female St Mungo’s resident’s view:

    ‘I don’t think services address childhood trauma. My childhood was a bit messed up until about 3 or 4 years ago really. When I first came into homelessness services the focus was on sorting out the practicalities of moving forward rather than mentally looking back. I was lucky that I had already made contact with a therapist previously. I think access to therapy (like St Mungo’s LifeWorks) is key. When you get to that stage in life when everything is dislocated, it is because of a long history of events- life doesn’t fall apart in a day. For women experiencing homelessness, it is childhood trauma that fuels their issues such as mental health or substance use. It is futile to deal with the symptoms without looking at the Catalyst. I go to therapy every Tuesday and it has helped me a great deal- it is helping me move forward.’

  4. Jon Bird

    NAPAC is the National Association for People Abused in Childhood. We are a registered charity, based in the UK, providing support and information for people abused in childhood. At NAPAC we try to make our services for adult survivors of childhood abuse or neglect as accessible as possible, and our main activity is a Freephone Support Line which offers 30 mins of listening and signposting to other organisations who can offer on-going face-to-face support. For more information about the services that NAPAC provide see: http://www.napac.org.uk/

    We do know of many anecdotal examples of people (both female and male) experiencing homelessness as a result of escaping abuse in the home. We recognise that all forms of abuse can have potentially major negative impacts in adulthood, not just sexual abuse. We find that it is often the emotional component of any abuse which does the long term psychological damage and can lead to attempts to escape abusive situations which result in homelessness.

    We collect anonymised information about our callers and do not get many calls from people who are homeless. I think people generally need to have some degree of basic physical security before they can address the causes of homelessness and other problems that have their roots in childhood trauma. Anecdotally, we also know that there are many people (again, both female and male) working in the street level sex industry who have learned to cope with this sort of activity as a result of prolonged childhood sexual abuse.

  5. Yvonne Traynor

    The Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre (RASASC) provides the national Rape Crisis helpline for female survivors of sexual violence, calling from anywhere in England and Wales. RASASC also provides Face to Face Counselling and Independent Sexual Violence Advocate (ISVA) advocacy for female survivors in the London boroughs of boroughs of Bexley, Bromley, Croydon, Greenwich, Kingston, Lambeth, Lewisham, Merton, Richmond, Southwark, Sutton and Wandsworth.
    Rape Crisis South London run the Rape Crisis National Helpline for female survivors of sexual violence. The Helpline is accessible 365 days a year to women who have survived any form of sexual violence, no matter how long ago, offering specialised, confidential support, information and referral details.


  6. Gillian Finch

    CIS’ters: surviving rape, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation during childhood

    CIS’ters work with Adult women (aged 18+) who were raped and/or sexually abused and/or sexually exploited as female children/teens by a member of their immediate or extended family.

    Though our work we are aware that childhood sexual abuse, particularly by a member of family – can lead to very negative coping strategies for women, which can lead to homelessness, and worse.

    CIS’ters facilitates group meetings, newsletters, workshops and campaigning for improved services from statutory and other organisations. They also provide training for other agencies. In addition the organisation runs a helpline once a week for female survivors Tel: 023 80 338080 (Saturdays 10am-noon).

    A flyer for our next training event, our service and a copy of our most recent newsletter is attached.

    For more information email: [email protected]

  7. Jane Glover

    Re-Unite is a programme that works to reunite and resettle families when a mother is released from prison.

    Jane Dominey and Professor Loraine Gelsthorpe conducted an evaluation spanning three years of Re-Unite South London (2010-2012) and 12 months of the replication of the Re-Unite programme in Birmingham, Gloucestershire, Greater Manchester and Yorkshire (2012).

    The researchers found “seven signs of success” and concluded that there is much evidence that Re-Unite is successful in accessing accommodation, establishing effective support, helping the women towards stable lives and facilitating the restoration of families – all of which are factors linked to reduced reoffending.

    They went onto to say that “Re-Unite has clearly provided the opportunity for children to return to their mother’s care with additional support at a time of transition and change. For some children, the existence of Re-Unite has certainly prevented them from being taken into care or remaining in care”.

    To read the full evaluation visit: http://www.re-unite.org.uk/in-the-news/independent-evaluation-confirms-that-re-unite-works

  8. Eleanor Levy

    Prior to working at St Mungo’s I worked in probation. In 2004 in an effort to resolve a contentious issue about the focus of my work, My manager and I agreed that I conduct a study regarding the needs of our clients. The initial object of the study was to establish alcohol treatment needs in relation to needs regarding other drug treatment, the latter receiving the majority of resources. I collected data concerning age, gender, ethnicity against needs regarding offending behaviour, physical health, mental and emotional health, housing, alcohol need, other drug need, education and training need. Within mental and emotional health after a few samples, I soon identified trauma as a major issue and adjusted my study to provide data on this as well. The study demonstrated far beyond what I set out to achieve, regarding treatment needs related to alcohol use. The study showed a prevalence among our women clients of trauma that was at much higher proportions than would be expected in general. Even more striking was that with increasing OASys scores (whether for alcohol or other drugs) it became more and more likely that the client would have suffered earlier trauma, typically childhood sexual abuse. I could predict with over 90% certainty that a women in this client group had suffered trauma, given a certain level of alcohol or drug OAsys score, with at least two other needs.

    My conclusions from the study were that if offending behaviour is serious enough to require probation order or prison, and there are other needs such as substance use, homelessness, educational problems, physical or mental health issues (typically anxiety or depression) these are strongly indicative that the client will need support to manage PTSD.

    I printed out the entire study data sets which took up several A3 sheets pasted together, in which the data were stacked according to intensity of need and how this collated with incidence of trauma, and pinned up to a whole,wall of our group room to show my boss. I remember responding to my manager’s increasing dismay as she absorbed the full impact of how many women clients suffered unrecognised and untreated trauma. It was the realisation of a vast tragedy that brought us both to tears, and an unforgettable demonstration of what complex needs means.

    I developed a screening tool based on DSM IV to assess clients for PTSD, and found that therapeutic interventions supported by GP prescribing were effective in supporting women to develop an effective coping strategy. By providing Counselling, I was able to convert clients previously disengaged from other programmes and support their re-engagement. Broadly speaking clients either opted to draw a line and concentrate on here and now coping strategies which after some 1:1 support brought them back towards group treatment in DRR, OSAP and the like; or they decided to explore the subject of trauma in more detail, find a therapist (occasionally they elected to continue counselling with me).

    It is tragic that after so many episodes with different agencies including substance use, criminal justice, social services, health services, DWP etc that so many clients, especially women, do not have this need accurately and competently identified or treated. With a bit of ingenuity and some multi-agency case coordination and advocacy the story could be so different.

  9. Gabrielle Brown

    “As a psychotherapist for St Mungo’s Life Works Team, some of the most horrifying stories I have heard from residents have been from women. These are often the granddaughters of women who have had adverse life experiences and it’s gone from generation to generation.”

    “Sexual and other forms of abuse in childhood are so common that one almost is surprised if somebody says that that wasn’t their experience. It’s not only what was done but the environment, where other family members knew and nothing was done, which has had such a traumatic effect.”

    “One of the very common experiences is women who were expected to take care of the rest of the family in a parental role from a very young age but not necessarily doing it very well. One of the hostels worked so beautifully because it had a lovely maternal manager. It took a lot of burden off the women to be mother to the men and it allowed them to be mothered a bit themselves.”

    “Psychotherapy as a profession has considered that the sort of people who might end up in St Mungo’s homeless hostels would not be suitable for psychotherapy. That’s not been our experience at all. People are able to make use of the therapy to build a relationship, even if they are still drinking, still using drugs, still what we would call acting out. Sometimes they have just changed their level of happiness. And sometimes people have changed their behaviours significantly.”

    “We are seeing women who are trying to use their bodies in all sorts of ways, like drugs and alcohol, to cut off their memories. I think getting pregnant works in that way. When they have had very poor childhoods, many women may attempt to rewrite the story and have a child in order to be a very different mother. It’s an absolutely devastating sense of failure when it doesn’t work.”

    “My team has a view that people become homeless because of a lot of psychological factors. And that homelessness itself creates a lot of psychological trauma, some of which repeats early experiences. And that both of those things need to be treated before people can settle and get back to a regular life.”

    Taken from an interview for http://www.wherefromwherenow.org/ women’s homelessness photography project by Georgina Cranston donated to St Mungo’s.

  10. Oliver Wilkinson

    The Who Cares? Trust supports and campaigns for children in care and care leavers.

    Children and young people in care are involved in every aspect of our work. They work with us to deliver influential projects, and help us produce all our publications, designed specifically for them.

    As well as listening to children, and empowering them to campaign, we run weekly workshops – from careers advice to cookery – to help them gain the experience, skills and confidence that other children might learn from their birth parents.

    These workshops help children and young people with experience of care to, for example, manage their money, write their CVs, develop their interview and employability skills, and talk about their experiences in a supportive environment.
    We have had feedback from young women saying that, without this support, they would have dropped out of college, and given up on their studies.

    One says: “I honestly don’t know what I’d be without The Who Cares? Trust. They brought out the best in me when no one else could see it.”

    To find out more or support our work, visit thewhocarestrust.org.uk. Follow us on Twitter (@WhoCaresTrust) or find us on Facebook.

  11. Linda Briheim-Crookall

    A forward looking social business, Catch22 has over two hundred years’ experience of providing services that help people in tough situations to turn their lives around. Catch22 Young people and Family Services will support vulnerable young people and their families to improve their life chances and personal outcomes. Enabling young people we work with to: feel safe, cared for and find a purpose in life. Catch22 delivers a number of care leaver services including the National Care Advisory Service. Catch22 delivers three major leaving care services nationally and also delivers housing support to care leavers in two other areas.

    The Catch22 National Care Advisory Service (NCAS) is the leading national body aiming to improve policy and practice relating to young people’s transition from care to adulthood. Our aim is to see all care leavers able to achieve their full potential and aspirations.

    For more information about Catch22 and Catch22’s leaving care services go to http://www.catch-22.org.uk and http://www.leavingcare.org.


    NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Trauma Service: Trauma and Homelessness Team

    NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Trauma Service includes several teams working with complex trauma. The Trauma and Homelessness Team is one of these. It is a mental health team in Glasgow that works with people presenting with difficulties related to complex trauma, who are homeless or at risk of homelessness and who are over the age of 16 years. Herman defined ‘complex trauma’ as long term, interpersonal abuse, occurring on multiple occasions and often beginning early in life (Herman, 1992). Research highlights that individuals who have experienced repeated trauma, especially of an interpersonal nature in childhood, not only experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but also a range of more complex difficulties. These include difficulties with view of self as well as interpersonal and emotional regulation problems. The team offers assessment, formulation and treatment, which includes a range of individual and group psychological therapies that are shown to be effective in treating complex trauma. The team also provide consultation, support and training to statutory and voluntary services, such as homelessness, addiction, and Leaving Care services.

    Homelessness and Complex Trauma

    Homelessness is often preceded by trauma including childhood sexual, physical and emotional abuse, witnessing or experiencing domestic violence, experiencing violent assaults and rape. Koegel et al (1995) found that women who had experienced childhood sexual abuse were at greater risk of adult homelessness. Research published by Glasgow Homeless Network (2002), indicated that service providers estimated that between 50 -100% of individuals experiencing homelessness in Glasgow had a history of trauma. The relationship however, between homelessness and trauma is bi-directional that is, as well as preceding homelessness; trauma is also a frequent consequence of being homeless (e.g. sexual assault, prostitution, witnessing violence).

    Experiencing complex trauma can impact on many areas of someone’s functioning. Our clients have said:
    - “I feel angry all the time, I don’t trust anyone, bad luck follows me wherever I go.”
    - “I try and pretend that I am normal and the same as everyone else but I feel different and no-one understands the fear, the guilt, the shame. I can’t cope with the memories. This is why I drink.”

    Three Phased Trauma Model

    The team uses a phased model (Herman, 1992) to address difficulties relating to complex trauma. All phases are underpinned by the establishment of a therapeutic relationship:
    Phase 1: Safety and Stabilisation – this phase focuses on improving the safety of individuals with regard to health, emotions, relationships, substances and environment.
    Phase 2: Processing of traumatic memories – this focuses more directly on the traumatic experiences. This allows the individual to make sense of and give meanng to the trauma and to reduce distress related to these memories.
    Phase 3: Reconnection – the final stage is putting into practice the learning from the first two phases and making links within the community for support in the longer term.

    Interventions for Women
    Meeting with a trauma specialist may help reduce the distress individuals experience by supporting them to develop better ways of coping. It also provides a safe opportunity to make sense of what has happened to them and to understand how the past is impacting on them currently.

    The team works with both women and men but offers specific group interventions to address the needs of female clients. One such group is a creative group which is a pre-phase 1 intervention for women who find it difficult to engage with services. The group uses art activity to improve self-esteem, to increase confidence in relationships as well as developing art making skills.

    Another intervention is the Safe and Sound Programme. Many adults who have experienced complex trauma also report high levels of re-victimisation (Classen, Palesh & Aggarwal, 2005). We offer an intervention for women to reduce psychological distress associated with complex trauma and the risk of re-victimisation. This is a ten-week group intervention accompanied by nine individual sessions, which focuses on developing helpful coping and relationship skills in order to improve all areas of safety. The Safe and Sound group is currently being evaluated.

    We are currently in the process of developing further interventions for complex trauma, as well as evaluating existing complex trauma interventions and research contributing to our understanding of complex trauma.

    More Information
    For further information about the Trauma and Homelessness Team visit our website: http://www.nhsggc.org.uk/content/default.asp?page=home_traumahomelessness

  13. Frances Caluori

    Place2Be works in schools providing early intervention mental health support, without stigmatising children, young people or families and at a point where they need it most. We currently reach 75,000 children aged 4-14 in England, Scotland and Wales.

    Place2Be removes the emotional barriers to learning and prevents the downward spiral that can lead to low aspirations, poor educational achievement, truancy and exclusion from school. We help improve children’s classroom learning and build their resilience, providing them with brighter prospects and hopeful futures.

    Place2Be is an integrated school-based service, offering swift access to counselling and other services. We support pupils with emotional and behavioural problems who often miss out on receiving adequate help from statutory services. We also offer training and advice for teachers and school based staff. Place2Be also helps parents, grandparents and carers in schools to become more at ease in their parenting roles and better able to develop positive and supportive relationships with their children and the school.

    For more information see: http://www.place2be.org.uk
    To read some examples of support to girls and young women see:

  14. Emma Scowcroft

    Deprivation and risk: the case for early intervention

    This report is part of a series by Action for Children on the overriding importance of intervening as early as we can to support our most vulnerable children and their families. The deprivation these families experience is deeper and more complex than poverty alone, and the belief at the heart of this work is therefore that fiscal help alone will not stop their problems from being passed on through the generations.
    Deprivation and risk: the case for early intervention is about the direct impact of deprivation on the lives of children and their families. Usually when stories are told about families in these circumstances, their problems are reduced to a single cause: irresponsibility or victimhood, a negligent or indulgent State, cultural collapse, poverty or, on occasion, acts of evil. Yet the reality is never simple. The lives of individual children and families are shaped and steered by a complex interplay of policy initiatives, personal experience and local resources.

  15. Emma Scowcroft

    Intensive Family Support – the evidence

    This paper brings together the Action for Children evidence base on intensive family support services. It is made up of research commissioned by Action for Children, research Action for Children is featured in and internal evaluations
    Action for Children’s evidence base shows that intensive family support can
    • keep children out of care
    • prevent anti-social behaviour
    • provide a cost-effective solution to service provision, reducing need now and in the future
    Our evaluated intensive family support services have been shown to raise the self-esteem of vulnerable parents and help overcome neglect by tackling issues in the early stages of a problem. There is positive evidence of change through the provision of intensive support via family intervention programmes to turn around anti-social behaviour by young people and families, often where there is a risk of eviction and homelessness.

  16. Emma Scowcroft

    As long as it takes: a new politics for children

    As long as it takes: a new politics for children, which makes the case for more long-term policy making. Solving the complex problems facing the most deprived children requires a level of long-term commitment that can only be achieved by cross-party consensus and a willingness to take an agenda forward over a generation.
    Backing the future, was commissioned from the new economics foundation (nef). It identified both the financial savings and the benefits for individuals, families and communities that investing in early intervention would bring. It also showed that for every £1 invested in our services, Action for Children produced returns of between £4 and £10.

    1. backing_the_future.pdf
  17. Emma Scowcroft

    Effective relationships with vulnerable parents

    We know human relationships are core to the delivery of effective services, no matter how programmes and funding may change. We also know that developing effective professional relationships makes a real difference to outcomes for the most vulnerable and neglected children and young people. So we commissioned York Consulting to undertake research to articulate how we develop effective relationships with vulnerable parents, and exactly how these relationships make a difference for the children and young people we support. This is the concluding part of their research: the final study report.

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