These are just a few stories of the work which Street Talk has done with women. The particular cases were selected because they illustrate aspects of the Street Talk model. The names of women have been changed.
Anyone can recover
Anne had been trapped in the vicious circle of addiction and sex working for eighteen years. It was a small miracle that she had survived life on the streets for so long. I was with Anne when she was in labour which came on prematurely after her brother was kicked to death in gang warfare on the street in Brixton. Anne managed to use crack several times during labour and both she and the baby were very unwell, withdrawing after the birth. Things didn’t look great for either of them that day; the sadness of knowing that the baby would be removed, overshadowed the joy. When social services weren’t prepared to give Anne a chance, Street Talk fought in court for her to get a place in rehab, and continued the therapy with her there. It was tough. One day, in her first weeks, she took me to look at the red brick garden wall about eight foot high. I didn’t know what we were looking at. Anne pointed to a place in the wall where the brick had crumbled. To Anne that was where, she could get a foothold, climb over, after dark, go and use crack, then climb back in, undetected. She said she never stopped thinking about that bit of crumbled wall. Anne didn’t climb the wall and she hasn’t used again. As her head cleared, she found the self belief and determination to overcome her addiction. Her troubles had begun in childhood, when she was born to a woman struggling with alcohol. Anne got her child back from care and has broken the cycle. She showed us all that it doesn’t matter how long you have been addicted, or how high the odds are stacked against you, anyone can recover. It’s never right to give up on a person.
The importance of enabling a woman tell her whole story.
Sometimes, the women we work with have just got caught up in a bad chain of events which other professionals don’t understand, either because they don’t have the time or don’t create the opportunity for a woman to tell her whole story. Too frequently, they just respond to the most recent incident. When people have lived through abuse they mostly feel deep shame and find it hard to talk about. I had a stark reminder of this when Kay, a woman of about fifty whom I had worked with over a number of years, was in court charged with assault. She had grown up being raped every Sunday by her father, who made her mother and brothers watch in later years. And he used to make the brothers rape her whilst he held her down. She became pregnant at the age of fifteen and tried to take her own life by jumping off the roof of the house. Kay went on to a life of addiction because she never got the help she needed at the right time. Crack was there and it helped her to block out the fear. She, like many of our women, self medicated for trauma with what was available to her. She was charged with assault when she had unexpectedly lashed out at her boyfriend when he woke her up on one occasion. Kay had never had any previous convictions and had no history of violence. She was referred to probation by the court and I was allowed to accompany her. The first question the probation officer asked her was “Did you have a happy childhood?” to which she replied “yes”. The probation officer would have moved on to the next question, had I not been there to gently suggest to Kay that she try to tell the probation officer how unhappy she had really been in childhood. After a pause, Kay was able to tell something of what she had lived through. The probation officer’s attitude immediately changed and she became very sympathetic and went on to recommend a non-custodial sentence with support built in to help Kay overcome her drink problem. This case illustrates the importance of knowing the whole story. The women we work with have very rarely ever talked about their childhood with professionals. Yet understanding what drives their addiction, depends on knowing why a woman started to use substances or alcohol in the first place.. This case also illustrates the importance of the Street Talk model where the therapist does attend court, probation and case conferences, ensuring that a woman’s story and her mental health to be taken into consideration by professionals who have the power to make important life changing decisions about that woman’s life.
Help at the right time
The outreach model, where Street Talk takes therapies into hostels and day centres enables women who have experienced a recent trauma to get therapy at once, without going onto a waiting list and without going through an assessment with one therapist followed by a referral to another. The women who are brought to the Medaille hostel for trafficked women have lived through the trauma of a precarious escape from their captors, quite apart from all that led up to their escape. The streets are dangerous, lawless places and women in prostitution are frequently attacked or raped. Women from both client groups are living with trauma experiencing symptoms such as flashbacks, acute anxiety, night terrors and phobias, as well as physical pain. It is not uncommon for women who have known repeated trauma to feel suicidal. I worked with a young Albanian woman ,Tia who escaped from a brothel when her captors got into an argument and she saw an opportunity to run for her life whilst they were distracted. She knew that she had only a minute or two before they noticed that she had gone and that it would be useless to try to run down the street because they would catch her. Tia had the presence of mind to hide in the bin next to the front door. She heard the commotion as the traffickers ran out searching for her, but she waited until darkness fell, and then she climbed out and started to walk. She did not know which city she was in. Eventually she came to a train station where walked up on to the platform. There she met a woman who was also Albanian who led her to the police station. I was sitting with her in a counselling session within 24 hours of her climbing out of that bin. She had many symptoms of trauma including panic attacks, chronic chest pain and suicidal feelings. The fact that I was able to help her so promptly made all the difference, and possibly prevented her from having more serious mental illness. I was able to work with her for nine months during which time she made very good progress, eventually feeling well enough to leave the hostel to live independently.
There’s no limit to how much progress women can make.
Some years ago,Ruth, a woman in her late twenties, came into the service on crutches. She had survived a fall from a balcony when she was high on crack. Like all of our women her story began with abuse in childhood. She was very mentally unwell, homeless, sex working and chaotically using. She presented to the counsellor grieving for her child who had been removed from her care but had died whilst in foster care. She was desperate and talked of taking her own life. She formed a good relationship with the counsellor who very quickly saw what an intelligent woman she was. Ruth had missed out on education because she had grown up being moved around in foster care. From the outset Ruth engaged well with the counselling; her mental health began to improve and she used less. After about eight months, Ruth began to talk about what she might like to do with her own life, to start to dream about what she might be capable of.
Street Talk works in partnership with an organisation called HERA, which provides a personal development training programme at Imperial College each summer. Ruth decided she wanted to take part and set herself the goal of stopping using crack before the course began. She achieved her goal but was very nervous and found it difficult to go into Imperial College on the first day. One of us had to walk around the block with her a few times. However she did go in and she soon found her feet, made the most of the opportunity and formed a very positive working relationship with her HERA mentor. She went on to an Access Course which led her onto a psychology degree at Middlesex University. She graduated this year and is now looking for post graduate courses. I have no idea how far she can go.
Small things make a difference
Lyn lived in a small village in Vietnam with her mother. One day, whilst her mother was at the market, men came to her home, saying that her mother had sent for her. She went with them and was trafficked into China, where she was kept in a brothel for six years until she was transported to a brothel in London. She was taken to the Medaille hostel. It was sad to work with a young woman of twenty who had seen nothing but the inside of a brothel since the age of fourteen. She believed that her mother had also been trafficked and she grieved that she would never see her again, her only family. She had never had an opportunity to talk about her mother since the day she was taken from her home in the village. She said to me one day, “You are the only person in the world who knows me.” In those early days, she struggled with agoraphobia. She was too afraid to leave the hostel. One of our volunteers agreed to meet her, to walk together with her to the end of the road. She found it too difficult and frequently had to turn back, but the volunteer was patient and one day something happened which turned things around for Lyn. She succeeded in walking as far as the main road near to the hostel where she looked in through the window of a hairdresser’s. Lyn was enchanted. She had found something she enjoyed, something to look forward to. It was the start of her recovery. The volunteer went with her as often as she could to look in through the window of different hairdressers and in the process, Lyn gained confidence and began to find her way about this new city and begin a new life here. One of her happy memories was of practicing Buddhism with her mother back in their village. As she gained the confidence to leave the hostel, Lyn’s next step was to find a Buddhist Temple where she could practice the faith of her childhood and where she took the first steps towards becoming part of a community again.
The importance of long term work
Street Talk has a model where we work with women over the long term. I first worked with Jane in the hostel in Brixton, where she saw me for counselling on and off, for a period of about two years, but didn’t engage regularly. She had a baby whilst she was living in the hostel. The baby was placed in foster care and Jane made the courageous decision to do all it took, to fight to get the baby back. From that moment, Jane never missed a single counselling appointment. The work over the next eight months was to support her to overcome her addiction. She didn’t get much support from anywhere else because people didn’t think she could do it. The counselling also supported Jane with the challenges of case conferences and court hearings over the first year of the baby’s life. Social services’ plan for the baby was for him to be placed for adoption as soon as possible. Jane had to fight through the family court for the chance to go to one of only two rehabs in the country, where mothers can go with their children. Street Talk submitted a statement to the court supporting her request and she was successful. Jane spent the next nine months in rehab together with the baby. She was away from London but she was able to keep in contact with Street talk by phone, whilst she was in rehab and we wrote to her, as well as sending her books because she loves reading.
Jane did well in rehab, she beat her addiction. She returned to London with the baby, but in spite of her success in rehab, social services stuck to their care plan to have the baby placed for adoption. Jane continued her weekly counselling sessions and Street Talk submitted a further report to the court supporting her application to have parental responsibility. It took another year of fighting through the courts for Jane to prove her parental capacity and we stood by her, attending every court hearing. Once she had been awarded parental responsibility, the other agencies withdrew and Jane who had by then been housed in an area of London where she felt very isolated, felt vulnerable and lonely. The counselling continued and at this stage Street Talk also provided some family therapy sessions for Jane and her two sisters from whom she had been estranged for many years. Over that year following the final hearing, Jane also got back in contact with her tow grown up sons who had been removed from her care. Both of her sons were in prison when Jane got back in contact with them and was able to go the prison gate to meet one of them on his release; she had seen him since he was in junior school. Although it brings joy when family are reunited it is never easy. Jane’s sisters felt a lot of anger towards her for all that had gone on during the years of her addiction and her sons felt abandoned. They thought she had chosen crack over them. Jane needed support whilst family relationships healed. She continued to attend counselling for two years following the final hearing. We worked with her closely over a four year period and we are still in touch with her. She knows that she can ask for support when she needs it.
Getting caught in a bad chain of events
Sometimes a small event can cause a catastrophic chain of events in a woman’s life. Sally had come from Jamaica with her daughter to join her partner and daughter’s father, but without sorting out her visa and legal status in the UK. This small detail had very serious consequences. After some years Sally left her partner, making herself and her daughter homeless in the process. Without recourse to public funds, Sally found herself on the streets. The daughter, then aged eight, was taken into temporary foster care. Sally was desperate to get her back but couldn’t support herself any other way than through prostitution and ended up arrested and on remand in prison unable even to visit her daughter. She was acquitted when her case came to court but she had already served seven months on remand. She was about to be sent back to Jamaica, by the UK Border Agency when another client of Street Talk suggested that she come to see us. She was desperate because she was not going to be allowed to take her daughter back to Jamaica with her. Social workers had told her she would have to wait until her daughter grew up and left care to see her again. The first thing we did was get one of the lawyers who work, pro bono for Street Talk, to look into her immigration status. He was able to obtain leave to remain for her. That changed everything. A partner agency was then able to get her housed and on benefits, so she no longer needed to resort to prostitution. Once she had engaged with the counselling, Sally found the confidence to take on social services, who had at that point reduced her contact with her child to monthly visits. She took them to court and was successful. The judge granted her full parental responsibility and she and her daughter were reunited after three years of separation.
She continued to see the counsellor over the first year of life together with her daughter. Both she and her daughter are doing extremely well. We referred Sally to our partner HERA, where she developed ideas about starting a market stall. She should never have been separated from her child when she became vulnerable. Social services placed the child in foster care because she was at risk on the street, but did nothing for the mother. The child was at risk, but that child was punished with a traumatic separation from a mother who loved her and who was capable of taking excellent care of her.