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Listening to women in police custody. Why is it so important?

Posted on 04, October 2012

Matina Marougka: Women’s Forensic Mental Health Practitioner and co-author of new IARS report: Listening to Young Women in Police Custody: Mental health needs and the police response comments on the findings:

I am a psychologist and work as a Women’s Forensic Mental Health Practitioner at Together’s Court Liaison and Outreach Project based at Thames Magistrates’ Court in East London. My role here is to assess the mental health needs of female offenders. This is so that I can offer sentencers a community based alternative to remand and custodial sentences and support women to engage with community services to tackle their offending and address their health and social care needs.

In my role, I have seen firsthand how important early intervention is, especially with young women and girls. It is vital that that we work at the earliest possible point with females to address their emotional and social needs, often a factor in  their criminality, to prevent the cycle of offending being set in motion. Amongst women, turning to crime is often a manifestation of complex emotional, mental health and social needs which have not been identified or tackled. Many young female offenders have had difficult family lives or have been the victims of abuse, leading to substance-abuse or self-harm as a way of coping.

Through addressing their wellbeing needs early, not only are their lives improved but also there is a greater chance of their re-offending being reduced.

By the time they reach the court stage, their offending behavior is likely to have escalated and become more entrenched. The police are the first point of contact for individuals within the criminal justice system, so it is crucial that these women’s wellbeing is assessed and they are diverted to community support, at this point.

Social policy think tank IARS and myself applied to and were granted funding from the MPA Innovation Fund to undertake research which involved speaking to young women, to capture their experiences of being arrested by the police and whether their mental health needs had been picked up and addressed and if not, how we could improve this. We also wanted to give them the opportunity for their voices to be heard.

The young women interviewed reported that they felt unable at times to talk to police officers about their emotional and mental health needs. They said that this was because they were not asked, did not feel comfortable disclosing their problems, or were not given the privacy needed to do so. Some said they would have only felt comfortable talking to a female officer in private, but this option was not made available to them. Others felt that once they had managed to articulate their needs, they were ignored and they were not given information about community services they could attend for support.

As recommended in the report, it is really important that there is a designated officer, preferably female, available at all police stations who can engage women in these discussions. In addition, all police officers should have mental health training – specifically on the often complex needs of women caught in the criminal justice system. In order to do this, we need joined-up working between voluntary and statutory sectors and the police.

I believe that specialist Women Mental Health Practitioner roles such as mine should not only be provided at court but also in police settings. Early identification equals early intervention and often without specialist training the mental health needs of these women go unnoticed. Hopefully as the government’s national liaison and diversion programme continues to be rolled out, we can ensure this happens more consistently.

Listen to Matina speak on women in the criminal justice system and the issue of listening to young women in police custody here: http://soundcloud.com/iars-1/panel-2-policing-and-mental